Property tax

Ouachita Parish homeowners who are claiming homestead exemption on more than one home or on rental property could be held responsible for any unpaid taxes on a home illegally shielded through an extra exemption, the parish tax assessor says.

Under state law, a homeowner can claim homestead exemption only on their primary residence. Homestead exemption frees homeowners from paying ad valorem taxes on the first $75,000 of a home’s market value. The exemption does not shield homeowners from paying property taxes levied by municipalities.

If approved by local taxing bodies, parish homeowners’ homestead exemption claims could be reviewed through a third-party audit later this year, according to Tax Assessor Stephanie Smith. The proposed audit could begin this summer, though local taxing districts must sign off on the audit first.

“This is an important project that affects every taxpayer in this parish,” Smith said. “It is part of our ongoing efforts to assure fairness, equity and consistent application of the law - so that everyone in Ouachita pays their fair share of the tax burden that supports our quality of life.”

The audit would consider homestead exemptions claimed since the beginning of the 2017 tax year and also would gather documentation on whether homeowners claimed additional homestead exemptions on homes in Ouachita Parish or any other parish in the state.

Smith proposed the homestead exemption audit to the Ouachita Parish Police Jury and Ouachita Parish School Board earlier this week.

Both taxing bodies pledged their support for the audit.

“I think this would be a great thing because it would help enforce the law,” said Assistant District Attorney Jay Mitchell, who serves as the Police Jury’s legal counsel.

“The mere fact of enforcing the law is enough to justify this audit. Some people may take advantage of things, and it’s not fair to other taxpayers, though there may be some people who have claimed an additional exemption without bad faith.”

A 2016 state law makes the illegal use of homestead exemption a criminal offense with a fine of up to $500 and up to six months in prison.

The Ouachita Parish Sheriff’s Office, which collects ad valorem taxes on behalf of the local taxing bodies, also supports the audit. There are 85,000 pieces of property in the parish, according to the Sheriff’s Tax Collection office.

In 2017, there were 35,616 residential properties receiving a homestead exemption in Ouachita Parish, according to Smith.

Smith said Caddo, Lafayette and St. Tammany parishes launched similar audits and successfully recovered tax dollars.

Smith and other parish officials said the income derived from the proposed audit would represent new tax dollars, which were previously unavailable to local taxing bodies.

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