First Assessor Election Pits Legislator Against Businessman
Candidates say the election will bring accountability to the assessor's office.
St. Louis County voters will elect an assessor for the first time on the April 5 ballot.
The choice comes down to a third-term state representative, Jake Zimmerman, and a real estate executive with 37 years experience, L.K. “Chip” Wood. Both candidates said they believe that by making it an elected position, voters sent a message that they want the assessor to be accountable to them.
The charter amendment allowed the two parties with the most votes in the 2008 governor election – Democrats and Republicans – to nominate candidates for the office in the 2011 election only. As a result, no third-party or independent candidates will run this year.
L.K. ‘Chip’ Wood
Wood is an executive in his family’s firm, L.K. Wood Real Estate. He has appraised real estate for 37 years, but his sons now run the business’ day-to-day operations. The assessor’s race is Wood’s first venture into politics.
“I got excited about the Tea Party message. It’s like on ‘Network’: ‘I'm mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,’ ” said Wood, of South County.
When the assessor became an elected position, Wood said it was his chance to make a difference.
As assessor, one of his goals would be accurate assessments. Wood said he found that while neighboring Franklin County’s appeal rate is less than one percent, 35 percent to 40 percent of St. Louis County assessments are appealed.
“I can definitely do better than that,” Wood said. “If I ran my business like that, I’d be out of business.”
The county’s assessment should be at least 90 to 95 percent accurate, he explained.
“My goal is to give everyone a fair shake on their assessments,” Wood added.
Another goal is to make the assessor’s office more efficient by eliminating wasteful spending.
Wood met Wednesday with Franklin County Assessor Tom Copeland and said that county has a $1-million budget to assess 70,000 properties. The St. Louis County has a $13-million budget to assess 139,000 properties.
“For less than half the price per property, they satisfy 99 percent of their residents,” Wood said. “We charge twice as much and we’re right only about 65 percent of the time.”
He has appealed assessments several times, he said.
“I want to treat people like they’re human beings. The appeal process can be demeaning,” he said as he described his experience.
“The last time, I went down to a huge gymnasium and waited around for a couple of hours until they called my name,” he said. “All they did was take my forms and say they’d get back with me. I could have mailed it in.”
People also don’t feel they’re listened to during the appeals, he said.
“If you spend $2,000, $3,000 or $4,000 in taxes, don’t you want to feel you’re getting a fair shake?” Wood asked.
Democratic nominee Jake Zimmerman is a state representative from Olivette, who was elected in 2006 and is serving his third term. He served as deputy chief legal counsel to former Gov. Bob Holden, assistant attorney general under Jay Nixon and as a litigator for the Thompson Coburn law firm. He has a Harvard law degree.
Zimmerman said the new assessor will face an urgent need to bring accountability, fairness and responsiveness to the office.
“A lot of this comes down to treating people with basic respect, by treating them the way you would want to be treated,” he said.
Zimmerman said he wants no bureaucratic runaround when people call the assessor’s office. He would have positions whose main responsibility would be rapid taxpayer response.
“They are entitled to a quick call back from somebody who is on their side, willing to see the world from their perspective,” Zimmerman said.
He said a person who owns $50,000 home has to feel they are being treated as fairly as the owner of a $500,000 home.
Zimmerman said he heard from people in his district who appealed their tax bill to the Board of Appeals and won, only to have their assessment raised 40 percent two years later.
“I would classify that as stupid government,” he said.
“They need to know that they’re not going to a kangaroo court, that they will get a fair review,” Zimmerman said. “You don’t make people pay for fighting the system.”
Zimmerman said he wants to ensure seniors aren’t taxed out of their homes.
Last year, he proposed a bill based on an Oregon law that would not allow government to collect real estate taxes to the point where a person cannot remain in their home.
“Instead, you treat it as a lien on the title, so you wait until the house is sold and there is income coming in to pay the taxes,” Zimmerman said. “That way, you don’t treat anyone differently, but you don’t tax anybody out of their home either.”
Zimmerman said as assessor, he would lobby for a similar law.
The assessor is in charge of the St. Louis County Assessment Division, which discovers, identifies, classifies and assesses all real and personal property in St. Louis County.
Every two years, the assessor’s office is required by state law to re-assess values on about 389,000 parcels of real estate in St. Louis County to market value. Property owners can appeal the assessments.
Residential property is assessed at 19 percent of market value. The assessed value is applied to tax rates set by local taxing entities, such as school, fire protection, the county library and other districts.