CLAYTON — Like many senior citizens, Joel and Cheryl Miller live on a fixed income.
He’s a retired banker. She’s a retired speech therapist. They own a second-floor condo just north of downtown Clayton. It’s worth more than $550,000.
I mention that number because it’s the reason they wrote me. Actually, they copied me on a letter they wrote to members of the St. Louis County Council. It was in October, right around the time the council had approved a plan to freeze real estate taxes for people older than 67, as long as their home is below a value cap of $550,000.
The Millers, who are in their 70s, thought this was an arbitrary number.
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“Based on media reports and quotes from some of you on the county council, the reason for the cap was so that the wealthy don’t need financial assistance to remain financially viable,” they wrote. “That may be true of most cases in which the cap in value is exceeded, however, there are many senior citizens who are house rich, but cash poor. This has been caused by recent dramatic increases in home values due to inflation, housing market dynamics, and assessment errors. The high value of a homeowner’s residence may be a burden (or trap) if there is debt on the home, the homeowners are living on a fixed income, and the real estate taxes continue to rise.”
Over the years, first when they lived in Clarkson Valley and now in their retirement home, the Millers have kept a close watch on their tax bills. The county re-assesses home values every two years, and the Millers have often challenged. And they’ve generally won a reduction, in part because their building doesn’t have underground parking or elevators like newer condos. That means when the county compares sales of units like theirs to other condos in Clayton, the values are skewed.
They have filed challenges to the assessments and showed proper comparisons, in a process that has not been too difficult to navigate.
“They were cooperative and cordial,” Joel says of the Board of Equalization, which fields assessment challenges. “They always had an open mind.”
Like many homeowners, the Millers were a bit shocked at the jump in assessed value — 27%. But when Cheryl went before the Board of Equalization, she had a different experience than before.
“They were very short with me,” she says. “They had their minds made up. They were rude. They really didn’t want to listen.”
The Millers, it turns out, are not alone. Sarah Siegel, external affairs manager for St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman’s office, says complaints about the Board of Equalization are up significantly this year. The Board of Equalization is a separate entity from the assessor’s office. Its members are appointed by the St. Louis County executive and confirmed by the county council. But when people complain about the process, they often call the assessor’s office.
To make matters more confusing, there are actually two Boards of Equalization. In 2021, the council passed a bill adding a second board; the goal was to speed up the challenge process. This year, Siegel says, nearly all the complaints are coming from the second, newer board. Many of the taxpayers who call or write have complaints that mirror the Millers’ experience.
“We accept feedback and will work to do better,” said Doug Moore, spokesman for County Executive Sam Page.
Siegel has sent letters to some of the taxpayers who have complained to the assessor’s office. No citizen, one letter reads, “should ever be treated with anything less than respect and professionalism.”
The Millers have appealed their assessment to the State Tax Commission, a more complicated process than they are used to. They’ll be fine, whatever the outcome. But they want other taxpayers, and the officials who didn’t respond to their first letter, to know that they aren’t happy about how they were treated by the Board of Equalization.
It’s a hard enough process for people living on fixed incomes and trying to watch every penny, Joel says. They should at least be treated fairly when they stand up for their rights.
Read More: Couple gets ‘rude’ reaction in St. Louis County tax challenge. They’re not alone.