Barking Up the Wrong Tree

Assessment fiasco has politicians howling for county assessor's head -- but is he really to blame?

Asking a politician whether taxes are unjustly high is something like asking the family pooch whether dinner sounds like a good idea: The inquiry can be expected to receive roughly the same level of careful consideration before you get your answer.

So it goes in St. Louis County, where rising real-estate values have conspired to cause rising real-estate tax bills, in turn causing rising tempers among taxpayers. Now, what do county politicians think about that?

Woof.

With a level of irrationality more befitting hungry ol' Spot, politicians of both parties basically starting barking wildly about assessments after some 82,000 taxpayers were hit with increases of 17 percent or more (over the past two years) in bills that went out this fall. A 1987 state law requires physical inspection of properties whose assessment increases exceed the 17 percent level, and that posed a virtually impossible task for the undersized office of assessor Maurice "Mo" Gogarty.

In the past two months, the previously unknown Gogarty has been Osama-ized by taxpayers and politicians at packed County Council hearings and in the media. The biggest fuss was over the alleged use of hurried "drive-by" assessments by the assessor, as if he had a better choice or as if closer inspections would have made a difference in the taxpayers' outcome anyway.

Justified or not, the calls of "Kill the ump, even if the calls are right," did Gogarty in. Last week, the barks turned into bites as County Executive Buzz Westfall issued resign-or-be-fired ultimatums to Gogarty and his boss, revenue director Mike McIver.

McIver, related by marriage to Westfall, is going in peace. But Gogarty -- unlike McIver, a civil-service employee -- has gone in quite the opposite direction, retaining noted attack attorney Chet Pleban for his defense.

It spells trouble for Westfall, who has sunk needlessly to the level of his political foes by sacrificing loyalists to save his own skin. That unpleasantness, coupled with giving publicity-happy Pleban an opening to keep the story alive for months, may be a much more bitter medicine than standing tall against the largely unfair criticism his administration was receiving.

Mac Scott, Westfall's communications director, gamely insists that the county executive wasn't playing politics, merely reacting to new information that came out in recent weeks. "The public has to have confidence that the people that are running that department are doing the absolute best work that they could be doing," he says. "As a result of the hearings in the County Council, that confidence was in question."

Scott says concerns arose over testimony by assessors working for Gogarty that they were asked to go out to inspections with less information about properties than they'd had in the past and were expected to do it too quickly. He does add, however, that "obviously the public reaction was a very strong motivator in Buzz's decision."

Pleban sees the story a tad differently.

"Mo Gogarty is a bean counter," Pleban says. "He doesn't set policy; all he does is implement whatever lousy policies the politicians put into place. Just look at the whole controversy over drive-by inspections. You'd have to be the village idiot to let somebody in your house to count sinks and toilets to determine its value. All that can do is increase the value of your house if you've improved it."

Pleban also contends that Gogarty's due-process rights were trampled. He argues that a pre-termination hearing set for today before McIver is flawed by McIver's relationship to Westfall, and he'll be arguing that county attorney Pat Redington has a conflict of interest because she'll be battling Gogarty over a subject one which she previously advised him (a charge she strongly denies).

"This is a case of 'Bring the guilty bastard in so we can give him a fair trial,'" Pleban says. "Westfall has already said that Maurice Gogarty has to resign or be fired. But Westfall isn't in the civil-service loop. The only reason he put himself into the loop is to deflect the political fallout."

Redington says the action against Gogarty wasn't political at all, but she won't give details, saying it's up to Gogarty to reveal the letter from the county saying why he was being fired. Pleban counters that the charges in the letter are "defamatory" and won't be released. Uncommonly good political theater lies ahead for the county.

In fairness to Westfall, none of this would have happened were it not for a bad tax system's colliding with good economic times in the county -- that, and the willingness of his Republican foes to exploit the problem shamelessly.

Councilman Kurt Odenwald (R-5th District), a potential Westfall foe in next year's election, led the way with inane calls to freeze everyone's increases at 17 percent whether the higher assessments were just under current law or not.

Were Odenwald's mischief to become reality -- fortunately, an unlikely prospect -- public school districts in the county (recipients of more than half the property-tax dollars) would have to scramble to cover more than $12 million in shortfalls this year alone, says John Oldani, executive director of the Cooperating School Districts. A similar fate would befall fire districts and other entities.

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