COLUMBIA — With less than six weeks until the Aug. 5 primary elections, the two Democratic candidates for Boone County assessor met for an old-school candidates’ forum at the weekly Muleskinners luncheon on Friday.
During their opening and closing speeches, and in response to voters’ questions, incumbent Tom Schauwecker and challenger Barbara Bishop addressed the most prominent campaign issues, including public disclosure of home sale prices, the use of vehicle identification numbers, or VINs, for vehicle assessment and invocations of “change” and “fairness.”
Among the audience of a mostly older-than-50 crowd were elected officials and candidates for city and county offices. Also present were a few disgruntled taxpayers, whose questions brought to life a back-and-forth that had previously been playing out primarily in the Internet blogosphere.
The Boone County assessor is responsible for determining the value of all real and personal property in the county, which influences the annual amount of taxes individual residents will pay. Schauwecker has held the office since 1989.
In his two-minute opening address to the crowd, Schauwecker pre-empted Bishop’s demand for change by invoking an adage: “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said. “And I’m here to tell you, the office of Boone County assessor isn’t broken.”
He reminded his constituents that Boone County’s assessed valuation has risen to about $2.2 billion from around $650 million when he took office 19 years ago. He also noted that his office’s reserve fund has risen to more than $1 million, up from about $100,000 in January 1989.
Schauwecker also touted the efficiency of the assessor’s office during his tenure. It has “embraced technology,” “ensured correct valuations with VIN methodology,” and added only two or three full-time employees in nearly 20 years, he said.
Bishop disagreed with Schauwecker’s assessment of the office:
“I think it is broken,” she said, asserting that there have been instances of “broken trust” that led her to re-examine the Missouri Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which above all touts “fairness.”
The issue of fairness is what prompted her to enter public service, said Bishop, who is a member of the Ashland Board of Aldermen.
During the question-and-answer period that followed, one audience member asked for clarification on the issue of using VINs to determine the value of automobiles. Schauwecker began using them in 2005. VINs reveal the history and other details of any car. Schauwecker has said they allow him to assess property values more precisely by factoring in the options — such as leather seats, power windows, or CD players — that a car might have.
“The law is clear,” Schauwecker said. “The assessor shall use average value October N.A.D.A. (National Automobile Dealers Association's Official Used Car Guide) to assess vehicles’ value.”
“It’s the most fair, accurate way of assessing value in the state of Missouri — bar none,” Schauwecker said.
Bishop, who in her two-minute opening speech observed that her “10-year-old Jeep just got more expensive in taxes,” countered the incumbent’s argument.
“A lot of times I’ve heard: ‘The law says...’ I’m not going to hide behind the law. A lot of time it’s open to interpretation.”
One woman in the audience, Alison Martin, rose to ask a pre-written question about a 2005 incident in which Schauwecker inadvertently left a profane voice mail on a woman’s phone while he was speaking to an employee. The episode was reported in the Columbia Daily Tribune. Martin asked what message it sends when a county official uses the F-word.
It was Bishop’s turn to answer first:
“Under Barbara Bishop the only F-word you’ll hear is F-A-I-R, ‘fair,’” a line she said twice during the question and answer session.
Schauwecker followed: “I’m a human being. I have emotions, and I’ve apologized for the profane language. From the bottom of my heart,” he said. “My F-word is: I beg forgiveness.”
Before the forum, Schauwecker said he was “harnessing nervous energy” and looking forward to the opportunity to address the crowd personally. He called the event’s format a “throwback,” now that much of politics and campaigning has gone digital.
“It’s a chance for everyone in this room to size us up,” he said. “It’s a real eyeball-to-eyeball situation. ... I always believe the more personal contact, the better.”
Bishop said she was “very excited” after the forum. “We saw issues discussed: definite differences of opinion on how that job’s supposed to be done. And we had good, knowledgeable questions.”
Muleskinner Greg Ahrens agreed the forum was a “good dialogue.” The problem, he said, is that it didn’t help him to decide on a candidate.
“I’m not quite sure who to believe,” Ahrens said, referring mainly to the VIN issue. “It seemed like there were different approaches to things, and that shouldn’t be.”