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The office of St. Louis County Assessor–which will be an elective office as of April 5th for the first time ever–is not and should not be partisan. The winner of that election should leave his party affiliation at the door, and I have no reason to suppose that Republican L.K. (Chip)–you gotta love that nickname–Wood or Democrat Jake Zimmerman will do otherwise. Like many taxpayers, they both believe that the office has been drunk on high handedness.

Jake–since Zimmerman’s website calls him Jake, so will I–tells the tale he got from a friend of his, a progressive guy:

someone who likes paying his taxes. He just thought the assessor’s office got it wrong. You know, they took a snapshot at a particular time in the real estate market, and he said ‘Look, I’ve got the facts, I’ve got the sale value of the house down the street, and I can tell you, my house is not worth this much.’ And he knew that he would win during the appeals process, so he went in not during the appeals process but in the initial stage, the informal hearing, when the assessor’s staff has the opportunity to say, ‘you know what, you’re right, we’re gonna change it.’ And he goes and he meets with the woman and he very carefully lays all this out and he gives her the documentation. And she says, ‘You know I think you may be right, but the law says we can do it this way, so we’re going to do it this way.’ [With his wicked grin, Jake twirls a finger in the air and in a high pitched voice hoots at the stupidity of it, then continues his story.]  And the guy says ‘Look. I knew I was going to win. I had to go to the Board of Equalization, but once I got there, it took five minutes. I gave them the documentation, they said of course you’re right, and they reduced my assessment.’

The question is, why was he forced to jump through a totally unnecessary bureaucratic hoop? It’s not like it saved the assessor’s office any time. It’s not like it made the process more efficient. It’s not like St. Louis County got any more money out of it at the end of the day. That’s just public management stuff.

By the same token, Chip Wood tells the story of waiting several hours when he challenged his assessment. When his name was called, the staffer took his papers and dismissed him. He could have mailed them in and saved hours. Both these candidates get it, that the cavalier treatment of St. Louis County property owners has to stop. So as far as who wins, it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other, right? Uh-uh.

Because the winner doesn’t just wave a magic wand and get staffers to change their habits. So how might the new assessor reform his work force? I suspect L.K. Wood doesn’t know. At a recent forum for employees of the County Assessor’s Office, Wood opened his remarks by saying that he doesn’t trust the government, and that he’s going to do something about it. He may not have even noticed his foot in his own mouth, but if your first message to the people who might work for you is ‘I don’t trust you,’ you set up a self fulfilling prophesy. If you tell people they’re a bunch of dirty bureaucrats, they’re going to behave like dirty bureaucrats.

Jake wants to communicate a “we’re all in this together” culture with his employees if he wins.

If you want public employees in a tiered level management structure, if you want them to have your back, you’ve got to demonstrate that you’ve got theirs. So to me, that means I’ve gotta be prepared to take some slings and arrows. I’ve gotta be prepared to go out and do a bunch of town hall meetings. I’ve gotta be prepared to listen to taxpayers about what their grievances are. … I feel like if I can demonstrate to the people in that office that I’m committed to them and that I’m gonna support them if they do their jobs right, but we’re gonna have a one hundred percent commitment to listening to the taxpayer? Then my hope and my philosophy is that that’s how you sort of build a culture of responsiveness to the taxpayer that maybe wasn’t there before.

Instead of focusing on responsiveness, Chip Wood is taking aim at inefficiency in the office. Nothing wrong with eliminating waste, except that his mantra reveals some disturbing ignorance: “The cost per assessment in St. Louis County is $33.42 per Assessment when compared to the State Average Assessment of $14.00 per Assessment.” Jake points out, though, that 60 percent of the economic activity in the state occurs in St. Louis County. Franklin County doesn’t have Centene’s or Express Scripts or the Galleria, and those commercial properties are much more complex to assess. A real estate magnate like Wood should be aware of that.

Jake will look at wasteful spending, of course, but it isn’t his priority. He lays out on his website the job he’ll expect staffers to do and what he himself will do. It’s common sense stuff:

  • No more drive-by inspections. The inspector has to get out of the car and examine the property, as well as know the value of homes in the neighborhood.
  • If the value of your home goes down, so should your assessment.
  • The process of challenging an assessment will be simplified.
  • Jake will fight to freeze assessments for seniors. “[N]o one should live with the fear of being taxed out of their home.  If your income is frozen your assessment should be too.”
  • Jake is so determined that the office will be responsive to people that, not only will every call be answered promptly, but “You will have the direct number of the person handling your case.”

  • Jake intends to stop politicians from using assessments for backdoor tax increases. “Assessments should not be used to raise taxes and I will stand up to politicians who think otherwise.”

Jake’s history makes his claims of concern for ordinary taxpayers credible. As an Assistant Attorney General, for example, he prosecuted internet scammers.

I inherited, when another lawyer moved on, a tech geeks case, and the tech geeks had a very innovative business model. They would advertise a laptop on e-bay for fifteen hundred bucks, and you would send them fifteen hundred dollars, and they would not send you a laptop. They would keep the fifteen hundred dollars. It’s a great business model, and I’m sure you can’t find anything wrong with it.  So, needless to say, people were unhappy, and I remember talking to a guy who was a college student–not at one of the state universities, but at a community college. He had saved up enough money for this laptop, but he did not have a few extra hundred dollars sitting around for tuition. He was tremendously aggrieved. I mean, these people had ruined probably a year of his educational future.

Anyway, we got them. We sent the investigators out and got a confession out of the woman who had done it and ended up getting an arrest made. And then I found out after the fact, someone said, ‘You know the last woman who had this case, she wanted to close the file. She said it was small potatoes, you know, gonna take too much time to track down.  The AG’s office has better things to worry about than fifteen hundred dollar computer fraud.’ My philosophy is that fifteen hundred dollars may be small potatoes to the lawyer, but it isn’t small potatoes to the guy who got defrauded.

Similarly, I don’t care if you’re a big commercial real estate developer who has the resources to fight the county assessor’s office all the way through the appeals process, but you hate that it takes three years and you’re infuriated at stonewalling; or if you’re a senior citizen who is potentially looking at being taxed out of your home over a difference of a couple hundred bucks. It ain’t right  to give people the bureaucratic back of your hand no matter which person you’re dealing with, but the difference is that it’s frustrating for the commercial developer. But to the senior citizen, it’s a difference of two hundred bucks, but they cannot afford to hire a lawyer to represent them. If they don’t have a way to get through, and if they don’t know that someone’s going to return their phone call, then that’s the person who gets taxed out of his house.

That’s a Democrat talking. Good on him. I expect him to leave his politics at the door if he’s elected. But I’d still rather have the Democrat than the Tea Partier in that office.

If you live in St. Louis County, get your fanny to the polls on April 5th. It matters.

CORRECTION: Jake’s office informs me that he misspoke when he said that 60 percent of the economic activity in the state occurs in St. Louis County. It’s more like 25 percent.