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Government, Politics & Issues

Zimmerman prepares to take charge as St. Louis County's new elected assessor

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 19, 2011 -One of Jake Zimmerman's first tasks as St. Louis County's first elected assessor in 50 years is hashing out with the County Council how many employees he has.

About 170 people work on county assessments, from assessing homes and personal property (cars, trucks and planes) to mailing out notices.

But many of them now work for the county's Collector of Revenue, who has supervised the county's appointed assessor for decades. Those staff members' salaries were covered by assessment funds since they handled assessment business. Zimmerman plans to ask the council to transfer as many of those employees as possible to his new domain.

First, though, Zimmerman has to wait for the official clout to make such a request.

Today will be his last day in Jefferson City as the county's state representative from the 83rd District, after almost five years in the job. He plans to make a brief floor speech in the state Capitol, offering up a few observations about state government along with poignant good-byes.

At noon Wednesday, Zimmerman will be sworn in as St. Louis County's first elected assessor since 1960. A Democrat, Zimmerman won the post in the April 5 election, in which he handily defeated Republican L.K. "Chip" Wood, who heads a prominent real estate firm.

The assessor became an elective one after voters statewide and in St. Louis County made that decision at the polls last year. For decades, many St. Louis County property owners have contended that the county's assessments are too high, compared to property elsewhere in the state's 100-plus counties with elected assessors.

Although he's not yet the county's official assessor, Zimmerman already has been on the job unofficially.

He convened a "town hall" last Friday with all the staff. "I made a brief presentation to tell them how we'll put some of those campaign goals into reality," he said, adding that he was heartened by the upbeat reception he received.

"Everyone has to point the ship in the same direction," Zimmerman said. "A lot of those ideas will be coming from the hard-working people who work in this office."

Zimmerman was interviewed on Monday as he tried out the chair in what will soon be his office. The office had been occupied until Friday by acting assessor Mike Brooks, a veteran employee in the office who stay on as a division supervisor.

Although impressed by the employees he's met so far, Zimmerman plans to find out from the council the extent of his hiring authority.

He recognizes that most of his employees already are covered by the county's civil service system. That said, "I do want to make sure I have the authority to bring in the people needed to do the job, and to move people around."

Zimmerman acknowledges that his input will be limited in this year's reassessments since much of the work is already underway.

For the first few months, he predicted with a chuckle, his situation will be similar to "drinking out of a firehouse," as he learns the ropes of his new job while creating a new operation within county government.

That learning curve extends to the elevator.

On Monday, as Zimmerman left for lunch, he punched the wrong button as he tried to figure out the county government building's quirky setup. The street-level floor is "S." The "first floor" on the elevator is really the building's second floor.

What's on that "first floor?" he asked. The council chambers -- where Zimmerman expects to be a frequent visitor for the next few months.

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