First elected at the end of the 20th century, the Lafayette assessor has huddled with peers to devise a method of bringing property assessment kicking and screaming into the 2st century.
And the biggest hurdle is this: There's no cheap way to get there. Witness Comeaux's recent request of parish officials to fund a portion of a $613,000 software bundle, known in property circles as a CAMA, or computer-assisted mass appraisal, system.
He's already footed the bill for $150,000 in hardware, including PCs, digital cameras and tablet PCs allowing quick field entry of property characteristics. And he's willing to spring for $264,000 of the $613,000 CAMA system, provided parish taxing bodies including the sheriff's office, school board, city-parish council and other municipalities cover the rest.
What's driving Comeaux to spend the equivalent of 36 percent of his annual budget on a single software system? The daily difficulties his field assessors face.
"It's horrible," Comeaux says of current methods. "Somebody goes out into the field with pencil and paper, draws a rough sketch in the field and adds characteristics. [CAMA] will cut down tremendously on the labor input and allow us to keep up with the assessment values, which is the ultimate goal.
"It'll be like going from prehistoric times to the high-tech era."
This month, Comeaux told parish and municipal officials his office left an estimated $200,000 in potential tax revenue on the table in the previous tax year, because deputy assessors were under-equipped in their ability to accurately assess all properties.
At that rate, taxing jurisdictions would recoup their investment in a few years, but Comeaux points to benefits beyond the bottom line for government. Fairness and accuracy in valuing property, those virtues coveted by taxpayers, rank high. "Currently, our system doesn't have input fields for the property characteristics," says Comeaux, describing such crucial benchmarks as square footage, construction type and construction quality. "All of those characteristics are not on our system. It's on paper."
That means human error enters the equation and makes property assessment an even more inexact science. Comeaux is equipping his staff to carry digital cameras, infrared measuring devices and tablet PCs into the field. With the CAMA system loaded on the tablet PCs, field assessors would be able to load sketches, property data, photos and measurements and download them seamlessly into the office computer.
CAMA offers automated calculation of property values based on the inputs and an audit trail showing every stage recorded, features that guarantee greater accuracy. And when taxpayers challenge their valuation, there's an appeals module to document that process. When the state mandates reassessment of property every four years, updating and recalculating values will be a snap because of all the data on file, according to Comeaux. Also, the assessor has acquired software to transfer that data to an Internet-based global information system, or GIS, so the public will be able to view property information by clicking on a map. About 40 percent of that mapping is done, and the partial GIS will debut this year, with the complete mapping of 100,000 parcels requiring several years.
The value equation
The case for making progress in property assessment has merit, but at what cost? Is the CAMA a good buy?
Livingston Parish Assessor Jeff Taylor thinks so. He's buying a system from the same Florida company as Comeaux ' Software Techniques ' and investing $45,000 in hardware (he's not buying tablet PCs now) while convincing parish officials to pay for a $371,000 CAMA.
Taylor's system will cost less because of lighter demand. Lafayette has nearly 200,000 people, 80,000 housing units and 6,700 businesses; Livingston has a little more than half Lafayette's population, 42,000 fewer housing units and 5,500 less businesses. Software Techniques President Larry Zirbel also says price differences in the parishes' CAMA programs result from different choices of 15 categories of tool sets within the system and support services from the company. Software Techniques hasn't yet signed final contracts with Livingston and Lafayette officials.
An Arkansas company would have required $3.5 million to complete a turnkey GIS mapping system of Livingston Parish, Taylor says. That's why he and Comeaux see the Florida CAMA system ' with its powerful assessment applications ' as a relative bargain. And they'll build the GIS platform gradually.
Taylor says the CAMA approach will increase his staff's ability to record every parcel of the parish for each reassessment.
"We know that it's going to make our office more efficient," he says. "If I can add to the rolls, you're going to get more revenue. If I don't, you're just going to keep rolling along, and you're going to be strapped."
Referrals led them to Software Techniques, where Comeaux witnessed the CAMA system handling, for two counties with more than 350,000 parcels each, all the functions he needs in Lafayette. The same system also tracks 2 million parcels for Houston.
But not everyone has gone out of state in search of mass appraisal systems. West Baton Rouge, the smallest parish by landmass with 10,000 parcels, debuted perhaps the most advanced appraisal system in Louisiana in December 2004 after Assessor Barney Altazan laid more than two years of groundwork for modernization. Altazan also spent about a third of his $520,000 annual budget to get there, but the result is a state-of-the-art GIS system that allows residents and land professionals alike to click on a property map for all relevant assessment data, plus sales information that's updated weekly.
"I think it's beneficial to the public because they can now get a ton of information from their office or their homes that prior to this required a trip down to the courthouse," says Deputy Assessor Chris Guerin. "The whole system has just cut down tremendously on the amount of time it takes to serve somebody."
West Baton Rouge tapped a pair of Louisiana consultants: Shreveport-based Software and Services and Metairie-based Geographic Computer Technologies to complete the appraisal conversion. "We're proud of what we have, and we were able to find some guys on the cutting-edge right here in the state who could take care of this for us," Guerin says, recalling a recent visit from a Lafayette customer. "He drove in and starting asking questions. And by the time we were all said and done, he said, 'I could have stayed home in my pajamas and found all this information.'
"That's what you hear all the time. People are very appreciative of being able to access the data online."
Local and state agents Thursday night raided The Keg, the popular college bar located in the area known as The Strip, leading to the (at least) temporary closure of the venue.
Here's your daily look at late-breaking national and international news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Friday, April 18, 2014:
Friday's Blogs from the Bog!
Time and time again, the Lafayette Parish School Board shows an overwhelming tendency toward idiocy, but Wednesday night’s contentious discussion over Northside High School’s teen mother program tops the list of dumb discussions.
“The accomplishment of this goal within the next ten years is not only critical for the region to effectively compete with other regions for residents and businesses, but also to provide an amenity for everyone in Acadiana to enjoy.”
Education Superintendent John White says a continued push to try to keep Louisiana from using tests associated with the Common Core education standards are creating "a state of chaos" for public school teachers.
Gov. Bobby Jindal's plan to use $210 million in surplus and one-time money to help balance next year's budget received the backing Thursday of the State Bond Commission, support that was needed for the maneuver to work.
State wildlife and fisheries agents have arrested a 39-year-old man accused of stealing crawfish.
An East Feliciana Parish lawmaker has jettisoned his proposal to make it harder for a condemned prisoner to appeal a death sentence.
Senators advanced a proposal Wednesday that would let the governor remove New Orleans-area levee board members for violating what he considers to be public policy, despite concerns it would introduce political meddling into state flood protection.
The Lafayette City-Parish Council on Tuesday will vote on a resolution that if approved would clear the way for a December ballot proposition asking voters to approve a 1-cent sales tax parishwide to help fund the construction of a new terminal at Lafayette Regional Airport.
Just days before the fourth anniversary of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster and oil spill, the Coast Guard has moved cleanup of Louisiana's coast to a new phase, allowing BP to end its "active" efforts in the area.
Legislators still must leave their guns at the door of the Louisiana Capitol.
Sen. Fred Mills may have an "R" behind his name, but his actions in the Louisiana Legislature transcend the established boundaries of his party.
The Louisiana House overwhelmingly rejected a repeal of the state's unconstitutional anti-sodomy law Tuesday.
The Louisiana Senate sided with Gov. Bobby Jindal and the oil industry Tuesday, agreeing to void a lawsuit that a south Louisiana flood board filed against more than 90 oil and gas companies for coastal damage.
Acadian rep notifies would-be supporters that an April 25 fundraiser for the embattled U.S. rep won’t go on as planned.
While it isn’t all too unusual for public bodies to have hired security present during meetings, the LPSB’s push to do so is arguably a response to the antics of one board member.
“I’m running. Why would I be raising all this money? Just to have to return it to people?”
With incumbent U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu watching from afar, and with a united Democratic Party in her corner, the fight to get the GOP officially behind Congressman Bill Cassidy is gaining just as much momentum as it is hushed controversy.
15th Judicial District Judge Durwood Conque has announced that he will not seek re-election after 27 years on the bench.
The controversial standardized tests are set to be used in third-grade through eighth-grade public school classrooms next year.
The Louisiana Senate has agreed to prohibit unmanned aircraft from flying over chemical plants, water treatment systems, telecommunications networks and other items considered "critical infrastructure" in Louisiana.
It didn’t take long for KATC TV 3 to jump all over the news of a dead body found in Girard Park, but in its rush to produce headlines, the local TV station got sloppy.
An unholy trinity of civil-society upheavalers whose first names are not Conner, Tanner or Logan are facing charges in Eunice.