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County property assessments may jump 20 percent this year


March 16, 2005 - By SCOTT MILLER

Staff Reporter

St. Louis County property value assessments may jump 20 percent this year, resulting in a significant boost in tax bills.

School districts have received notice from county officials, and property owners will know for sure when they receive their assessment statements in the mail beginning Friday, March 18.

The State Tax Commission of Missouri sent a letter in October to St. Louis County Assessor Phil Muehlheausler, informing the county that residential property assessments are "at 79 percent — an unacceptably low level."

The commission's numbers are based on a study by the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

"Your assessment maintenance plan calls for a thorough reassessment, which we believe is absolutely essential to bring assessments to an accurate level based upon market value," according to the letter signed by state commissioners Bruce Davis and Jennifer Tidwell as well as Chairman Sam Leake.

County officials say the tax commission is not mandating anything, but did acknowledge a spike in residential property assessments.

"Personally, in my subdivision, I live in south county, my values are jumping by leaps and bounds," Muehlheausler told the Call. "What we're seeing is interest rates are fairly on the low side, which leads to people moving up, buying bigger homes, buying newer homes," he said. "That has a bearing on property values. There's a demand out there for property. We just try to shoot for fair market value. That's our main function: Try to shoot for fair market value."

Citing studies on property assessment trends, he said some properties are increasing 9 percent per year.

"Of course, our reassessment is for a two-year period so you can take a stab at what the numbers could be," Muehl-heausler said. "What we're trying to do is hit fair market value. Some (assessments) are going to stay the same, some are going down and some will go up. I've got a lot of appraisers out on the streets. Right now, I don't have any numbers."

Based on meetings with county Chief of Staff Jim Baker and the Cooperating School Districts, Lindbergh School District Chief Financial Officer Pat Lanane says county assessors appear to be taking the Tax Commission's advice.

"(County officials) said they don't want to see it in the newspapers, but I don't care," Lanane told the Call. "They said (assessments could increase) between 17 to 23 or 24 percent. That's their guess.

"I've got to get out and talk about this," the assistant su-perintendent for finance added. "They can't drop me a bombshell right before the election."

Lindbergh is asking voters for a 65-cent tax-rate increase in the April 5 election, and Lanane says homeowners could pay more if they reject the increase because residential property values are more likely to jump than commercial properties. Because tax collection from assessment growth is capped for school districts, Lindbergh would have to roll back its tax rate on residences. But state law also allows the rate to be at least $2.75, which it wouldn't be if assessments increase 20 percent.

So the Lindbergh Board of Education could hike the tax rate back to $2.75 and collect the revenue a failed tax-rate increase would have generated. That hike would only affect the residential property owners, however, because they're getting hit the hardest with increasing assessments.

In effect, Lanane said, homeowners assume more tax burden, while Proposition A would distribute the burden equally to commercial, agricultural, personal property and residential property taxes.

But county officials say they haven't made the predictions that Lanane claims.

"We haven't made any predictions like that," county spokesman Mac Scott told the Call.

"In St. Louis County, we're fortunate to live in a place where people like to buy property," he added. "Our function is to make sure that we're fairly appraising homes."

Referring to assessment studies, Scott said, "We've been accused of being under assessed, over assessed. I think there's a study for any idea you want to adopt."

Assessment increases of 20 percent aren't unprecedented in St. Louis County. It depends on the property. Some property values could decline, Scott said.

"I don't know if it's common or uncommon," he said. "But in St. Louis County, downwards is a rarity. People want to live here."

While assessments may have jumped 20 percent in the past, a blanket increase of such proportion would be highly unusual, Lanane said.

But this year, he said, "it seems to me to be very likely.

"If people thought drive-by assessments were a big PR (public relations) problem, this is probably many times greater potentially as people try to understand what happened," he said, referring to the former practice of drive-by assessments that since has been prohibited by the County Council.

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