It Takes a Village, but Do We All Have One?

Old School New Orleans Mortgage Records

Old School New Orleans Mortgage Records

New Orleans    These are the dog days. Walking the dog or loading the car means a full-on sweat. A cold shower is delayed until minutes before the dash to work. Unsurprisingly, fingers find themselves checking temperature listings in Wyoming and Ontario. Just saying.

Meanwhile the tasks of the day can’t be avoided or delayed any longer.

It turned out once I started opening all her mail over the last many months that my mother had not been getting the homestead property tax exemption which like the NFL Saints and Mardi Gras is one of the sacred traditions of Louisiana. Going to the elected tax assessor’s office in the swelter of August also used to be a sacred tradition when we had eight of them as people would line up for hours and days to appeal for a reduction. I can remember in high school hearing my dad talk about the experience more than once. So though I started trying to deal with straightening the mess out for her in January and came close to getting it done in February, the window for appeals was open now in August, so the clock was ticking.

Nothing is easy about the process. You have to have a current utility bill and 18 months’ worth of records. Of course my mother’s name was not on the bill, only my father’s, so there’s that. The power of attorney has to be recorded at the conveyance office at the clerk of court’s office across from City Hall, but of course when I present myself they assume that what the assessor needs is a copy of the bill of sale which lists my mother of course by her maiden name, which she hasn’t enjoyed for over 70 years.

What year did they buy their house, I’m asked? I’m positive it was after I had moved out of the city. We looked in a half-dozen old tax record books in a separate room for that year, but no luck, so that meant going over to City Hall to another office to find the right book and page, since they could find the records by the address. Computers? What computers! You had better hurry I was advised. They are only open up 1 PM for the public. What?!? But, what a surprise, the woman couldn’t have been nicer, and was able to find the record in no time. Hey, you want a copy as well, it’s only a dollar? You bet, especially if I never have to come back!

Then it’s to the assessor’s office where I steeled myself for the crowds and the wait. I walked in and asked if I was in the right place. No one was there. I took a number as instructed, they told me to sit in the front row, but I was alone. I asked the super friendly receptionist, and with a smile she said, yes, times had changed, no one could believe the crowds were gone thanks to on-line appeals, automatic computerized property appraisals, and only one assessor now. But, no, my paperwork wasn’t right still. The assessor’s office didn’t need the proof from the property records at the conveyance office, they needed me to record the power of attorney to sit in front of them for my mother in the first place.

So I run back across the street to the clerk’s office. $133 later,  I have the power of attorney recorded as I stood in a bank of desks and listened to the four women steadily handling paperwork, kidding each other about #7 didn’t know this procedure, desk #4 will help you, I’m too busy, and so forth with a machine like efficiency and a sense of humor unexpected in the bowels of the bureaucracy. What the heck, while I’m waiting the friendly lady at City Hall said I could get a copy of the original bill of sale now that I know my steel trap memory of when my parents bought their house was 1000% wrong and off by several years. What was I thinking?!?

Then back to the Assessor’s office. Back to the right desk. Whoops, the power of attorney though crystal clear that it covers all real estate doesn’t work for them because they suddenly want it to specifically name the address of my mother’s home where she spends 24 hours of every day.

Was I going to have to start all over with the clock ticking on the appeal? For all of the helpful people I had conversed to with my cause over these hours, now I was full-on reptilian, as my daughter cautions against continually as my inner organizer erupts. In February,  I had been sent the adjustment forms after calling. My mother had signed them, but then I had been told I needed five years of utility records, I thought, and couldn’t get them, which is why I was there now. Over the divider sat the woman who had sent me the forms it turned out, which luckily I had brought with me. I kept talking. They called supervisors who had authorized sending the previous forms. Maybe they could simply check my mother’s signature on the POA against her earlier signature and accept those forms? Talk, talk, talk, and finally where there was no justice, there was mercy, the forms were accepted with a lengthy scolding.

I walked out relieved and the super friendly assessor’s receptionist chatted me up as I walked out about how they wanted to make people happy. I went back to the counter and told them how close it had come before I reverted to another of my daughter’s wiles and went full meltdown, “crying Yankee,” as we call it.

It takes a village, but I couldn’t help thinking what might have happened to someone else and whether they would have ever gotten the exemption or qualified for the refund. I’m not so sure.

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Using Local Property Taxes to Push Hospitals on Charity Care

shriverNew Orleans      John Bouman, the President of the Sargent Shriver Poverty Law Center based in Chicago was my guest on Wade’s World recently on KABF/FM talking about a number of subjects but especially the handles for pushing nonprofit hospitals to provide care for lower income families as part of their nonprofit status and especially their federal tax exemptions under the 501c3 classification of the Internal Revenue Service.  He continues to have hope that the Affordable Care Act can decrease inequality and particularly can advance racial equality since African-Americans and Hispanics have gotten such short shrift from the health care system of the country.  He argued vigorously, and correctly, that the Affordable Care Act was the most significant piece of social legislation passed and implemented over the last fifty years.

Bouman mentioned that in Illinois, thanks to unions and community pressure including from the old ACORN affiliates, they had enjoyed a version of the new national rule that forces nonprofit hospitals to actually deliver more free and reduced price health care to lower income families for some years.  Their rule seems like it might even be a model for best practices for all of the hospitals now under the federal mandate to produce a rule that would allow them to keep their tax exemptions.  The Illinois standard is transparent.  A family would be eligible for such care at 200% of the poverty level.  I like a “no ifs, ands, and buts” standard, and that’s what we need to push for everywhere.  The Illinois standard also was clear about remedial practices before more strenuous collection efforts.

Almost in passing, Bouman mentioned that in Illinois the state and some cities and counties also had the ability to punish hospitals that were scofflaws on the act or really just wolves in the sheep’s clothing of nonprofits.  I asked Bouman how could they do that, and he said of course they could take away any local or statewide property or revenue tax exemptions or allowances that they were getting as nonprofits with their charitable status.  Whoa, I thought!  We had overlooked the obvious handle there that could help us bring the fight to a very local level.

In Louisiana, where we might not have a chance with the state, the local assessors at the parish or county level are elected and often very close to the ground in terms of their responsiveness to community pressure and organizing.  Furthermore, there are absolutely property tax exemptions enjoyed by all of the big, and many of the small, tax exempt organizations from the huge outfits like the universities and colleges as well as the small housing operations holding properties for development.  Immediately, I could see organizationally how we could challenge a host of property tax exemptions that are worth millions.

In Arkansas, a quick look comes down to a test of how “public” the service or facility might be.  My point is that in each state and in many local jurisdictions there might be handles available to increase the pressure for hospitals to do right. The fight itself might be enough to force some change, as we have already seen in the reaction of St. Joseph, Missouri’s Heartland Hospital and its jump to attention when they received an inquiry from Iowa’s Senator Charles Grassley asking them to defend their exemption given their collection practices.

It might be one thing for nonprofit hospitals to turn their backs on community organizations and unions asking about their policies and asking them to do better, but it would be a whole different problem if they had to defend such inadequate programs and cutthroat collection efforts in public before a board of adjustment, an assessor, a tax equalization board or any other public forum.

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Please enjoy The Danielle Nicole Band’s You Only Need Me When You’re Down, thanks to KABF.

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