Lindbergh task force presents findings to Gibbons

Lanane discusses motivation for establishing Taxpayers Task Force

By MIKE ANTHONY

Representatives of the Lindbergh School District’s Taxpayers Task Force traveled to Jefferson City last week and presented their findings and recommendations to Senate Majority Leader Michael Gibbons, R-Kirkwood.

The task force was charged with developing proposals that will benefit taxpayers — particularly those on fixed incomes — without financially damaging the district. During the course of six meetings that concluded Dec. 27, task-force members formulated their report, which includes four areas — 11 taxpayer concerns, eight school-district concerns, six taxpayer and school-district shared concerns and nine recommendations.

A copy of the panel’s final report signed by roughly 135 Lindbergh taxpayers was hand delivered by task-force members to Gibbons and other state legislators.

Besides Gibbons, the Jan. 29 session in Gibbons’ office drew Sen. Harry Kennedy, D-St. Louis; Rep. Pat Yaeger, D-Lemay; Rep. Walt Bivins, R-Oakville; and Rep. Dwight Scharnhorst, R-Manchester.

Representatives of the Taxpayers Task Force who made the trip to Jefferson City included Dee Brake, Bill Klostermann and Jackie and David Link. They were joined by Pat Lanane, assistant superintendent for finance and the district’s chief financial officer, and Board of Education members Bob Foerstel and Vic Lenz.

Calling legislators’ attention to the number of signatures on the report, Lanane said, “… You’ll see really almost an unsolicited effort. We basically said to our committee members if you have friends that want to read this report and say: ‘Yeah. I support that, too.’ We had them sign on. I would have you notice as you leaf through that, the ages.

“I think that’s significant. We have a tremendous representation from our senior citizens. So I think that’s probably the importance of this piece to let you know that while we have a small group of representative people here today, it’s a much bigger group that is back in the district who have a real concern about these issues,” he added.

Legislators also heard Lanane explain the motivation for establishing the task force.

“… I was starting to see that this was going to be an issue where the needs of our senior citizens, financial needs, were going to be in direct conflict with the needs of our kids because in a hold-harmless school district, there’s really only one place to go for revenue,” he said. “And I thought: What a horrible dynamic. It’s what I call a dangerous dynamic. We do not want throughout the state of Missouri to have something become two battling groups. I can’t imagine a worse battle for our communities. We must all work together and that’s really what prompted me to say: Well, let’s bring them in and see what they have to say. Let’s see if there’s common ground and we did find that there is some …”

And finding that common ground is the key, Lanane said.

“… I think the legislators, elected officials and public administrators — we’re either going to be viewed as villains or heroes on this issue. There isn’t going to be any in between, and I think that the solution can only come by an effort to find common ground — find something that’s going to work for both the children of Missouri as well as all taxpayers and, in particular, those senior taxpayers. From the testimony and the different letters we received, that seemed to be really the group that is most at risk here in terms of property-tax increases,” he said.

Regarding taxpayer concerns with assessments, Lanane said, “The concerns had to do with the fact that, you know, we know there’s something wrong with the assessment procedure because of look at how many appeals they have and how many appeals they rule in the favor of the taxpayer … If it were cases you were trying and you were losing that many cases, I’m not sure you’d be a lawyer very long. So we think there’s something fundamentally wrong with a system that when it goes under the microscope has that many reversals.

“There is no cap. When you think about it, property taxes can go up whatever the assessments are and at some point, it seems reasonable … there ought to be something so at least I know what my worst-case scenario might be under any particular year. And then, the third one also relates to that — objective standards by which we evaluate the performance of the assessor’s office. I know I got an evaluation. (Superintendent) Jim Sandfort called me in this last week and I got mine. And he has very specific — he tries to go very much data driven. But who’s assessing the performance of the local assessor — both St. Louis and also statewide? …”

While discussing the task force’s recommendation that uniform assessment practices be adopted throughout the entire state, Lanane said, “… It probably will require some sort of statewide property valuation data … I know that’s a hot topic. I won’t use the certificate word because I know that’s a word we’re not supposed to use up here anymore, but I don’t know how you build a database without having the information. It’s ridiculous the assessors don’t have at least as much information as the local Realtor down the street has … It seems deliberate. I don’t know. I hope I’m wrong”

Gibbons said, “Well, for some reason — and I don’t want to do a point-counterpoint on any of these things, particularly, except on that … For some reason while in St. Louis city, county, St. Charles County, Jackson County, no one seems to be undone about reporting to the recorder’s office what was paid for property.” But outside those areas, he said, “It’s almost a cultural issue where they just feel it’s a deep offense to their privacy …”

However, he said he believed the current Missouri Tax Commission is willing to engage in enforcement action, something he could never remember being done in the past — “they’ve got 12 or 14 of them going now against assessors for underassessment and other things … but to be realistic about it, there’s talking, discussion and debate that can happen on those other things. Certificate of value, I just don’t — the Legislature’s going to have to change a lot more than it has already for that to really happen … Ten years from now, probably not the next Census, but the next Census after that, we’re going to be a largely suburban state and at that point, it’s going to be very different. Attitudes will change, and it’s starting to happen, but I just don’t think we’re there yet. I don’t think we’ll be there this year.”

Foerstel said, “But in the situation you’ve made it, it’s all revolving around that, the tax base … We get 92 percent of our taxes from the local people. We haven’t — we’ve been held frozen since 1993. We have no chances of getting money anywhere else other than our local constituents in our local area. That’s an impossible task. It can’t happen …”

Gibbons said, “If your survival is predicated upon a certificate of value passing in 2008, then it isn’t going to happen. I mean there’s not enough votes to pass it — period. And that’s just — that’s what I’m trying to say. These other things, you can talk about. You can work on it. The votes aren’t there. And that’s not — we don’t represent the entire state. Our entire delegation can vote uniformly and we do not have the votes to do it …”

But Gibbons agreed that having uniform assessment practices “would make a big difference, too, and that’s something that …. is starting to try to happen …”