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Mixed reviews greet Campisi's proposal to have assessor elected, not appointed


June 01, 2005 - Citing a wave of property value increases, County Council Chairman John Cam-pisi says he wants an elected county assessor accountable to taxpayers.

The south county Republican told the Call he plans to introduce legislation to amend the County Charter so the assessor is elected, rather than appointed by the county executive. If approved, the amendment would require a vote of the people, but County Executive Charlie Dooley likely will veto it.

"I don't think much of it," Dooley told the Call. "I think we have a fine charter. I think most counties are trying to be more like St. Louis County and get rid of all these elected officials."

The 2005 reassessment year has put the county assessor in the spotlight and on the hot seat. The Missouri Tax Commission wrote the county in October, saying assess-ments countywide were "at 79 percent — an unacceptably low level" — and needed to be raised. Some people saw their assessments jump 50 percent or more while others experienced smaller increases or no increases.

When assessment notices began popping up in mailboxes, Campisi's phone started ringing.

"We're still hearing of 45 percent, 50 percent increases. It's just ridiculous," he told the Call. "We're truly pricing people out of their homes. Whose salary really goes up 45 percent in two years? Mine certainly hasn't. And seniors have no other way to get income and they're homes are still going up like that.

"I think that it's a good thing for the county to have someone that's beholden to the people," Campisi added. "I'm not saying it will solve the problem of high assess-ments, but it is a step in the right direction."

The move could hurt taxing entities like schools, however.

"Electing an assessor with no appraisal expertise is a big mistake. That's what has gotten us in the trouble we're in. There are Joe Schmoes off the street that could get elected," said Pat Lanane, chief financial officer and assistant superintendent for finance of the Lindbergh School District.

Campisi said the voters would have the responsibility to elect competent officials, a responsibility they already have.

"Elections are held for everyone to file and it would be up to the people to make sure those people have the qualifications for the position," he said.

Lanane worries more about statewide assessment discrepancies that funnel more state education money to areas out state where elected county assessors are reluctant to raise assessments to fair market value. Electing a county assessor would not alleviate that statewide problem, he said, but could put more pressure on county schools to seek tax increases as assessments and revenue remain stagnate.

The solution, Lanane says, is a professionally certified assessor who makes decisions based on professional standards, not political influence.

"Setting assessments should be a professional opinion. Setting tax levies should be done on a political basis," Lanane told the Call. "I kind of think an assessor really needs to be elevated to a professional position, and by that I mean, you don't elect your medical examiner.

"There should be professional standards that must be maintained," he said. "Like CPAs have to take a test and be certified, they must then maintain the standards of that certification. They could lose their license if they don't."

Missouri does not require professional certification of county assessors, according to the Missouri Tax Commission, but most county assessors must take a 32-hour appraisal course every two years. Only the assessors of St. Louis, St. Charles and Jackson counties are exempt.

Councilman Kurt Odenwald, R-Shrews-bury, is interested in Campisi's idea, but also believes assessors need professional requirements.

"If we go to an elected county assessor, there ought to be some requirements," he told the Call. "If this referendum doesn't make it to the people, maybe we should look at amending the charter to establish some requirements for the county assessor. I think it's important to have a professional running that office."

Still, Odenwald said the assessor's office needs to evaluate its policies so assessments are more consistent. People of the same subdivisions, he said, are seeing their tax bills skyrocket, while the assessments of their neighbors' homes remain grounded.

"I think what people want is fairness," Odenwald said. "I don't think anybody wants property values artificially depressed. Property values are all over the place. Land values are all over the place. There's no consistency.

"I have been concerned perhaps that the assessment process is too insulated from the people," he said. "And by that I mean I don't think the responses to my concerns from the Department of Revenue have been adequate. My concern isn't the individuals in there doing the jobs day in, day out, it's with the policies of the departments itself. If the assessor were to be elected, it would be the assessor who set the policy of the department, not the county executive or anyone else. I think an elected county assessor would make that office more responsive. It would remove that department from outside influences. The county assessor would be accountable to the people."

Still, Lanane said the county assessor already is pressured by political influence. That's why the state Tax Commission had to mandate assessment increases, he said.

"Obviously, a directly elected assessor is going to be leery of crafting huge waves for fear they may not get re-elected," he said. "On the other hand, you have an assessor that is appointed by an elected official in St. Louis County, so the pressure may just be coming from someone (the county executive) down the hall ...

"Those (assessments) probably should have been at this (heightened) level," the Lindbergh assistant superintendent added. "They should have been raised over time but there were probably political pressures to keep assessments down."

Campisi said he didn't know how much support he would receive from the council, but had a good feeling the voters would be on his side.

"I think if it goes on the ballot, it will be an overwhelming success,'' he said.

County Assessor Phil Muehlheausler was unavailable for comment before press time.

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