By KEVIN CHIRI
Tammany West news
COVINGTON – Louis Fitzmorris said he is not bothered by the fact he is going to face an opponent in the Oct. 24 election, something that surprised a lot of people in the days leading up to qualifying.
Fitzmorris, the St. Tammany assessor still in his first term, said he is only hoping it will be a race that has no comparison to the election he had to win four years ago when he defeated longtime incumbent Patricia Schwarz Core.
“This is all part of politics and I don’t mind running an election campaign,” he said this week. “I only hope it’s nothing like the election four years ago that got ugly. I would like us to both run on our qualifications only.”
For months leading up to qualifying Sept. 8-10 for the St. Tammany elections coming in October there were virtually no names surfacing to challenge Fitzmorris for his assessor’s job.
Then, the day before qualifying, Covington real estate attorney Chip Bankston came out of nowhere to enter the race and suddenly give Fitzmorris something to fight for in the coming weeks.
Chip Bankston, a 1979 graduate of St. Paul’s High School and a former assistant district attorney in St. Tammany, said he made a late decision to challenge Fitzmorris after having several experiences of his own that left him thinking “someone needs to run for assessor.”
Bankston has worked in the real estate business most of his career that has spanned over 25 years, and that meant a lot of visits to the assessor’s office in dealing with property owned by his clients, or some properties he personally owned.
He said he never had a problem meeting with Core to have properties reviewed—which led to some reductions in property taxes–but found he was not given the same treatment when visiting the current Assessor’s Office operation.
“I met with the Chief Deputy Troy Dugas about the properties in question and was told there was nothing they could do about them, so I asked to speak with Fitzmorris and was told he was unavailable,” Bankston said. “I work in this business and talk to a lot of people who deal with the Assessor’s Office and I have heard the same story from many others.
“It goes back to the question of transparency and accessibility,” Bankston added. “The operation is not transparent and even though I was hoping he would do a better job when he got in there, I don’t think that has been the case.”
Fitzmorris did not disagree about whether he will see members of the public about assessment questions.
“I don’t meet with property owners on assessments unless I have an appraiser with me,” Fitzmorris said. “If I don’t do it for one person I don’t want to do it for others.”
Bankston also said Fitzmorris was not qualified for the job, serving as the mayor of Abita Springs before becoming assessor. Additionally, he brought many of his friends and colleagues into the office with him.
Fitzmorris did not disagree with that claim either, but saw no problem with it.
“There are four people I worked with for years in Abita Springs and when I considered running I asked them if they would leave their jobs and come with me, if I won,” he said. “They agreed and so I brought them. But it was because they were qualified and people I worked well with for years. I don’t see any problem with that.”
Fitzmorris said that despite the fact the job was new to him, he has spent three years “fixing a lot of issues and problems.”
He pointed to improved technology as a key issue he addressed, costing close to $100,000, to allow employees to have “the right tools to do the job.”
Fitzmorris said there were a majority of computers and servers that were close to 10 years old, leaving the staff working with antiquated equipment.
“I was impressed to see how well they managed to get the job done with such old equipment,” he said. “In three years we have done a lot to improve things and I think we have earned the trust of the public. I’m proud of the work the staff and I have done and I hope they will give me four more years to work on more things.”
Fitzmorris said his goal for the department is “to have the best equipment and be the best assessor’s office in the state.”
He said that anyone who questions if his office has not cleaned up what he called a lot of incorrectly assessed properties should only look at a number of lawsuits against him from people who had their property taxes raised, due to former under assessments.
“We have less homesteads now than when I took office,” he noted. “I took a lot of ineligible land uses and homesteads off the books. And we have always told anyone that if they have questions about an assessment that someone has, then they need to tell us so we can review it.”
Bankston, who has never run for public office before, said he is “very confident I can win” claiming that Fitzmorris “has done enough damage to himself. He hasn’t risen to the occasion to do this job and I decided to run since I think the people deserve a choice.”
Fitzmorris, who had what has been called “an ugly campaign” against Core, who had been in office 20 years, said the main reason Bankston got in the race was because Core recruited him to do so.
“We had some people in our office who told me they were called by Core and asked if they would support Bankston if he ran,” Fitzmorris said. “So I know she is behind him running against me and showing up at the last minute.”
Fitzmorris also said his office is close to unveiling their new Geographic Information System (GIS) that uses satellite technology to actually view any property in the parish through use of a computer.
“We will have this available for the public to simply see a property and it will help us identify any properties that are built now, but were not there in the past,” he said. “We hope to unveil it very soon.”