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Time's running out for county residents to challenge assessments

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 8, 2011 - Sounding like a TV ad salesman, new St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman is warning that time is running out for property owners who hope to challenge their latest residential assessments.

After extending the deadline twice, Zimmerman says, "We're going to hit our 'drop dead date' " within days for people seeking informal conferences to raise questions about their latest assessments.

Zimmerman said he couldn't be more specific about his final deadline because he is trying to wedge in as many homeowners as possible into the remaining slots for informal conferences. "I'm going to run out of slots," he said.

A special day, June 17, has been set aside to hear from homeowners whose property was damaged in the April tornado that hit northwest St. Louis County.

What is not negotiable, he explained, is that his office must turn over its assessments by July 1 to the county Department of Revenue. "I lose my power to help people at the end of this month," the assessor said.

At that point, said Zimmerman, the job of challenging assessments shifts to the county's Board of Equalization.

The public has until July 11 to file appeals to the board, by mail or online. The board's appeals sessions will be conducted in July and August.

Overall, Zimmerman said that the assessments for St. Louis County properties dropped 4 percent countywide since the last reassessment in 2009. But the declines varied widely among school districts, the unit that the county uses for regional comparisons because assessments most affect school districts.

The declines ranged from a drop of only 0.4 percent in the University City school district to 13 percent in the Hazelwood school district. Mid- and west county districts mainly saw declines in the 2 percent range.

(The declines don't necessarily lead to lower property tax bills because school districts and other taxing entities can legally increase their tax rates as long as they are below the maximum authorized by voters or the General Assembly.)

The final percentages have changed slightly from the estimates that the county made public back in March, before Zimmerman was elected April 5 to his post. He's the county's first elected assessor in 50 years.

The county's overall decline in assessed valuation reflects the economic slump that has been nationwide since late 2008, leading to higher unemployment.

The property-value drops have varied widely, depending on the fallout in individual communities -- and even neighborhoods. Real estate experts have said that the rate of an area's assessment decline also can hinge on the number of mortgage foreclosures, which often drive down prices for nearby properties.

Zimmerman acknowledged that the new assessments vary widely even within the school districts, affecting disparities within communities and neighborhoods.

On his own, he said, he is sending out appraisers to check out personally the small number of county homes that saw assessments increase by 15 percent or more.

His advice for homeowners who challenge their assessments is to "bring me some kind of evidence our staff can hang their hat on."

For example: "pictures of houses that sold for a different price'' than the comparables used in the disputed assessment. Or photos of disrepair or damage in the property owner's residence.

"Give us some hard evidence, give us some factual evidence," Zimmerman said.

Early indications hint that there may be fewer challenges this year, but the assessor acknowledged that may change. The assessments were sent out later than usual this spring, Zimmerman said. He blamed problems with the printer.

Since taking office, Zimmerman said he has begun a "top-down review" of the new department, which has about 170 employees. All were formally part of the Department of Revenue. His aim is to create a smoother process for the next round of reassessments in 2013.

Zimmerman said he was surprised by the "compressed time frame this all happens." One of his goals to revamp the schedule so that preliminary figures are compiled sooner.

Zimmerman said he already has sat in on several of the informal conferences and was pleased with how the staff were treating property owners as they attempted to make their case that their property was assessed too high.

At the very least, he said, "I saw a lot more taxpayers feeling like they were treated with respect." In some cases, the assessor added, "the homeowner has better information than we have."

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.