This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 25, 2011 - Family property assessments and unpaid or late taxes are looming even larger in St. Louis County's increasingly combative April 5 contest for assessor.
L.K. "Chip" Wood, the Republican candidate for county assessor, says he should be respected because he has kept his real estate company afloat -- and not attacked because his firm hasn't paid its property taxes in St Louis for the past two years.
Wood said Thursday he also has no plans to pay those taxes before the April 5 election because to do so would imply that he's acting inappropriately. "I don't think of myself as a tax dodger,'' he said.
Wood also has acknowledged being a year late in paying his business' 2008 personal property taxes in St. Louis County.
Critics, he said, should remember that the housing industy -- including real estate -- has been decimated by the economic slowdown over the last few years. "Ninety percent of the builders are gone," Wood said in an interview. "Fifty percent of the Realtors are gone."
"I've done everything I can to keep my company open,'' said Wood, who heads the family-owned L.K. Wood Realty, which has been in operation 60 years. "When did it become illegal, unethical or immoral to try to survive?"
Bill Hennessy, a founder of the St. Louis Tea Party, on Thursday endorsed Wood and wrote on his website that Wood's unpaid taxes aren't as bad as the late tax payments made by U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., this week pertaining to her family-owned plane.
Wood's allies blame his Democratic rival, state Rep. Jake Zimmerman, for this week's disparaging publicity (first aired by KMOX radio) over the Republican's unpaid taxes. They fired back late Thursday by circulating assessment records -- and posting them on the web -- dealing with the assessments of Zimmerman's father, Stu Zimmerman. The St. Louis Tea Party and the conservative website, 24th State, are questioning whether the elder Zimmerman got preferential treatment because records show he saw a sharper drop in his home's assessment this year, compared to 2010, than any other nearby residence.
Wood also pointed to Zimmerman's filing of his 2004 personal property taxes three weeks late, prompting a $7 fine.
Zimmerman's camp initially was incredulous at the attacks, but allies later countered by releasing 2010 and 2011 assessment figures for Wood's property holdings, which show that one on Gravois Road experienced a sharper percentage drop in assessment than Zimmerman's parents. Democrats say their point is to discredit the "special treatment" assertion at a time when many area properties are declining in value.
Mailboxes around the county also were filled late this week by a Zimmerman campaign flier that bluntly attacks Wood over the tax issue. Declares the flier: "L.K. Wood wants control over your property taxes but doesn't pay his own."
Wood is furious and threatening to go to court because the flier contends that "after multiple notifications, St. Louis County had to sue to get payment."
The flier is referring to the 2008 county taxes that, according to documents produced by Wood, were paid by Dec. 31, 2009. The county counselor's office did file suit anyway in 2010 for alleged nonpayment, but dropped the court action after Wood produced proof of payment.
Last week, the county counselor's office sent Wood an apology for the apparently unnecessary legal action.
Zimmerman's spokesman Ryan Hobart said the mailer is based on the publicly available records, which he says doesn't make note of that 2009 payment.
In any case, the Zimmerman camp contends that Wood and his allies are out of line for drawing Zimmerman's father into the fray.
Neither candidate is referring to their tax disputes in their TV ads, but allies expect that to change during the final days of campaigning leading up to the April 5 election.
Wood, who has never run for office before, contends he's stunned by the nasty turn of events. "It's a walk through a barnyard,'' he said. "I should have known I'd get my shoes dirty."
UPDATE: Zimmerman's spokesman Hobart asserted today Wood is to blame for the contest's harsher tone. "In an attempt to distract attention from the over $12,000 in back taxes he still owes, Mr. Wood has resorted to throwing everything but the kitchen sink out there as an attack."