There's No Place as Bad as This Home

Assessment flap doesn't bode well for the county's ambience

In the next two years, we may see all sorts of sickening vandalism in St. Louis County.

Windows could be broken, lawns covered with debris, walls punched out, paint scratched, carpets ripped, garbage overturned and more. Tree-lined suburbia might be transformed into a ravaged war zone of barely livable tenements.

No, this is not yet another dire prediction of terrorist activity. It's not even a warning of a juvenile-crime wave.

Beware the masochistic homeowner. Domicile self-abuse is about to rear its ugly head.

Yes, domicile self-abuse, the ugly practice of desperate homeowners' destroying the ambience of their homes in anticipation of a visit by the tax assessor. If county officials go forward with anticipated changes that would dramatically increase the number of home inspections, expect frenetic taxpayers to start attacking their own properties like vandals.

All sense of reason went out late in September with the 2001 tax bills, the most dreaded anthrax-free mail ever received in the county. Thanks to a robust real-estate market and better assessment accuracy (according to St. Louis County Assessor Maurice Gogarty), no fewer than 82,000 residential-property owners -- about 22 percent of total owners -- learned that the assessed valuation of their properties had gone up more than 17 percent since the last assessment, two years ago.

Naturally, many taxpayers went berserk, and politicians flocked like vultures. County Council Republicans Kurt Odenwald of Shrewsbury and Greg Quinn of Ballwin charged forth with demagogic proposals to cap all assessment increases at 17 percent.

The Republicans' hook was a tortured reading of state law requiring that all properties assessed at more than the 17 percent level be given a physical inspection by a county assessor. Traditionally -- and, according to County Counselor Pat Redington, in compliance with the courts -- officials have conducted "drive-by inspections" to confirm the higher assessments rather than actually examine each property in depth.

Previously the words "drive" and "by" were linked only to describe shootings. What negative spin will come next from the world of assessors? References to inspections as "hits?" Seizing on the dark images conjured by these "drive-bys," the politicians were emboldened to become truly absurd.

"I want to cap any increase at 17 percent for those properties where the physical inspection was nothing more than the admitted drive-by," Odenwald said. "If the assessor did not conduct the physical inspection required by law, I don't see how it can sustain his burden of proof for increasing that valuation."

That might sound reasonable enough to the 82,000 taxpayers looking at large increases -- or to anyone who doesn't like taxes, for that matter -- but the proposal's only real value is to Odenwald, who aspires to unseat County Executive George "Buzz" Westfall. What we have here is a case of cheap political gamesmanship, nothing more.

On its face, Odenwald's notion is outrageously unfair. Why should 78 percent of county property owners pay taxes based on the assessor's best judgment of their property values while Odenwald's chosen 22 percent pay at a level artificially capped by the politicians?

"It's wrong, both as a matter of fairness and constitutionality," Redington says. "The Constitution clearly states that taxes have to be uniform on the same kind of property."

The Republicans cite horror stories of taxes increasing by 100 percent or more, but were they equally outraged by the doubling of property values in the past two years in certain pockets of the county? Why shouldn't people be taxed on the most current and accurate values available?

Then there's the small detail of who would be punished -- other than Westfall -- for the anti-tax crusaders' antics. The losers, in the millions, would include the public schools, which receive more than half of the property-tax revenues and the fire districts, which receive about 15 percent. County government gets just 10 percent of the total.

Another key point -- lost in the hubbub -- is that the screaming critics are largely attempting to kill the messenger with the bad news (or good news, from a real-estate standpoint). Gogarty, heretofore unknown, has been much maligned in the media for the allegedly outrageous conduct of his office, but, unlike Odenwald, he has no apparent motive.

It isn't as if Gogarty receives commissions or bonuses based on assessment numbers. On the contrary, his life would be more peaceful if no one's property was the subject of an increased assessment.

"We don't set the market values. The people who buy and sell property in St. Louis County set the property values," Gogarty says. "Our job is simply to determine these values as fairly as possible, and we have been determined to do that ... The fact that there's this presumption we did something dishonest or that we cheated is very disappointing."

That said, Westfall appears ready to buckle -- at least somewhat -- under the political onslaught.

"I hate the drive-bys, and they're finished in St. Louis County," he told me Tuesday. "Technically the law indicates they're legal, but they're done here. They're over."

Westfall says the administration is planning to implement a new process wherein people can request to have an inspector make a thorough on-premises inspection if an assessment increases beyond the 17 percent level. Perhaps that will placate his political critics, but it doesn't make much sense -- a point he virtually concedes.

"Most people don't want an inspector coming on their property or coming to their house," Westfall notes, demonstrating the gift of understatement.

Perhaps that's wrong, though, and thousands of angry taxpayers will welcome government bureaucrats into their homes for the purpose of demonstrating that their homes are worth far less than the real-estate market would indicate. Presumably these people will "dress down" their homes -- the way one "dresses up" when trying to sell.

Why this would work -- why detailed inspections would overrule the marketplace -- is not clear. Where the money will come from for new inspectors is even less clear.

But we do know this for sure: Domicile self-abuse is upon us.

Taxpayers are so mad they're punching holes in walls.

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