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With April election looming, St. Louis County assessor's race heats up

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 11, 2011 -If the candidates are correct, the St. Louis area will see and hear a lot more of Democrat Jake Zimmerman and Republican L.K. "Chip" Wood before this month is out.

Zimmerman and Wood are vying to be St. Louis County's first elected assessor, as mandated by county and state ballot propositions last year. The election is April 5.

They participated Thursday night in their final face-to-face forum, moderated by the League of Women Voters at the University of Missouri St. Louis. The candidates have participated in at least six joint appearances within the past month.

The UMSL forum centered on similar themes: Wood emphasized his years operating a real estate firm, while Zimmerman focused on his experience as a lawyer and legislator.

Wood's campaign already has conducted a robo-call effort, while Zimmerman's camp has sent a glossy mailer. In both cases, the appeal was directed at frequent St. Louis County voters or those residing in targeted areas.

Although the job at stake involves just county voters, the political stakes are seen as much larger. Both major parties view a win on April 5 as offering a boost to their broader campaigns in 2012.

As a result, both candidates and their parties are talking about possible TV and radio spots to air during the final weeks. The publicity is deemed crucial for what is likely to be a low-turnout election. Democratic activists agree that, traditionally, low turnouts can favor Republicans, who often do a better job of getting their voters out.

Several prominent Republicans -- including U.S. Senate candidate Sarah Steelman and several area legislators -- also are helping Wood to raise a hefty chunk of money quickly to catch up with Zimmerman's sizable financial edge, as of their last campaign-finance reports.

Meanwhile, labor groups and prominent Democrats have endorsed Zimmerman and are among his donors. St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley also is supporting him.

The political activity on both sides almost overshadows the job's defined purpose -- to assess the value of private property in St. Louis County -- but also underscores how controversial that process has been for decades.

County homeowners for decades have complained that their property values are assessed too often and sometimes too high, when compared to the rest of the state. That's because all rural and some suburban assessors were elected, while the assessors in St. Louis, St. Louis County, Kansas City and Jackson County were appointed.

Last year -- at the behest of state Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, among others -- the General Assembly acted to put on the November ballot a measure mandating that all assessors be elected, with the exception of Jackson County.

Dooley, who had praised the appointed system, still moved to get an issue on the August 2010 ballot asking county voters if they wanted an elected assessor. By an overwhelming majority, they did.

Dooley said he wanted county voters to decide the issue first, without interference from the rest of the state.

Candidates Cite Backgrounds

Zimmerman, 36, is a Democrat from Olivette and just beginning his third term in the state House. He's a graduate of Clayton High School and Harvard Law School.

Zimmerman worked as an attorney in the Missouri attorney general's office under now-Gov. Jay Nixon and emphasizes his work as a lawyer and in the legislature fighting for consumer protections and against fraud.

Wood, 56, is the chief executive of L.K. Wood Realtors, a family-owned business for 61 years. He has been involved in the real estate business for 38 years.

Wood graduated from Chaminade College Preparatory School and attended Loyola University in New Orleans for a year. Wood emphasizes his expertise as a manager and in assessing property values.

One evening last week, the two candidates were campaigning within a few miles of each other in south St. Louis County. Wood held a fundraising event, while Zimmerman spoke at a union chili supper.

"Jake is awesome and one of the best speakers I've run across," said constituent Deb Sylvester, who showed up at the chili supper in a show of support.

Steelman made a surprise visit at Wood's fundraising event. "He's got great qualifications for this," she said. "His peers respect him."

Wood maintains that his career experience makes him the most qualified to run the assessor's office.

"I'm a lot more knowledgeable about the problem," he said, referring to the long-standing county dispute about property assessments. Wood says that he has done thousands of appraisals and can handle any function in the assessor's office.

Wood contends that Zimmerman is a typical "machine" politician.

Zimmerman says that he will bring the pro-consumer focus that he has displayed as a legislator. He touts Wood as too tied to the real-estate industry, which has a stake in keeping assessments high.

"I don't think that people are going into the voting booth looking for someone to sell their house," said Zimmerman. What they are looking for in an assessor, he contended, is someone who will "be an advocate on behalf of the taxpayers."

Both sides have fired off a few jabs, which could show up in any future TV or radio spots.

Democrats say that Wood has not been involved politically until recently. Activists are circulating county voting records that show Wood, while voting regularly in general elections, has rarely cast ballots in primaries or municipal elections. He has voted in only one municipal election since 1992.

One of the elections he apparently missed was last August, which contained the ballot issue asking county voters if they wanted an elected assessor.

Wood acknowledges that he has missed most local elections but says that's because he's been busy running a business and raising his family.

Overall, Wood sees his lack of a political background as a plus. "I'm 'George Bailey,' " he said, referring to the title character in the classic movie "It's a Wonderful Life."

Republicans, meanwhile, are questioning Zimmerman's vote in the state House last year against the elected-assessor measure that subsequently ended up on the statewide ballot.

Zimmerman says he opposed the bill because he believed that the state should stay out of the matter and leave the decision up to St. Louis County voters.

"I'm not a big fan of Jefferson City trying to force St. Louis County to do anything," he said.

Both Emphasize Public Service

Despite such sparring, both candidates are framing their pitches to voters in similar terms. Both are promising to ban "drive-by assessments," in which staff assessors either drive by or use computer models to come up with assessments.

Both also are promising to focus on customer -- i.e., taxpayer -- satisfaction.

What both cannot promise, though, are lower property tax bills.

Even if the assessed values of county homes are lowered, state law allows most taxing bodies -- such as schools and fire districts -- to increase their rates (up to a set maximum) to offset assessment declines.

Zimmerman says his aim, if elected, is to educate the public about what the assessor can and cannot do about property tax rates.

Wood says he hopes that the Republican-controlled legislature will take action to restrict the ability of taxing districts to increase their rates without a public vote.

But the primary focus of both candidates is on what the assessor can do.

"I'm a man on a mission," said Wood. "Think of the assessor's office as the foundation of the house."

He adds that -- if elected -- he plans to encourage any county property owner unhappy with their assessment to appeal. "Don't just take it," Wood said.

Wood says that county assessments should reflect the region's drop in property values, which he says are now down to 2001-2002 levels. He contends that the county's computer-generated assessments are often too high.

If elected, Wood envisions asking volunteer appraisers and real estate experts to do "simple market analyses and real estate comparables" to give inquiring homeowners a sense of whether their county assessments are fair or off the mark.

Zimmerman has been promoting his efforts, while in the legislature, to give a property tax break or deferral to elderly homeowners. As assessor, he says he'd continue to lobby for change. "We live in a community where seniors are being taxed out of their homes," he said.

If elected, Zimmerman said that, among other things, he'll focus on the details that now can cause complaining property owners' regular headaches.

If a property owner successfully challenges an assessment figure, for example, Zimmerman said he will make sure that the revised values are properly recorded in the county's computer database so the mistake is not repeated the next year.

But overall, Zimmerman said his chief message is simple: For whoever becomes the county's first elected assessor, "it is absolutely essential that everybody get treated the same. What the voters are looking for ain't exactly rocket science."

"There's no Democratic or Republican way to assess a house," he added. "There's just a right way."

Both candidates expect the public -- in St. Louis County and elsewhere -- to become more aware of their campaigns, and what they stand for, in the final weeks. Which means that both expect to become more visible very soon.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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