Tom Schauwecker faces his first re-election battle in 19 years as assessor
COLUMBIA — July 20, 1969, was a landmark night in Sharon Cunningham’s life for many reasons.
The Eagle had landed on the moon, and as she watched the history unfold on her parents’ television set, one of Sharon’s friends, who was there for a sleepover, picked up the phone to call a boy from their school.
“I’m at Sharon Cunningham’s house, and you should come over,” Sharon recalls her friend saying.
The boy’s name was Tom Schauwecker, and although he and Cunningham lived just a short bike ride apart and were both members of the class of ‘71 at Hickman High School, the two hadn’t met before that evening.
But their first conversation, as the two stood outside Sharon’s home, marked the beginning of a seven-year courtship, followed by more than 30 years of marriage and two children, now grown.
Sharon Schauwecker has seen her husband through his entire professional career: from his business classes at MU where he realized his love of real estate, to his first run for Boone County Assessor in 1988, when he visited thousands of homes campaigning door-to-door, to today, as he faces his first re-election battle in 19 years.
With just two weeks left before the Aug. 5 Democratic primary, Schauwecker continues his fight to keep his seat as Boone County’s tax man.
The Boone County assessor, to the extent prescribed by Missouri’s tax-setting formulas, influences property taxes by overseeing the assessment of all property — cars, homes, agricultural land, boats, etc. — in the county.
It’s a job that relies heavily on appraisal expertise, which Schauwecker has been garnering since he began studying for his business administration degree at MU in 1971.
Unlike his wife, , who graduated from MU in 1975 with a degree in education, Schauwecker did not go straight through college. Instead, he took some years off to work in construction for the Central Bridge Company and to earn his real estate and broker’s licenses. By the time he graduated in 1979, he was licensed to sell real estate and had already sold his first home.
But what he really enjoyed was appraisal, Sharon said.
“People walk into a house, and they love it or hate it,” she said. “It’s more of an emotional than a business decision, and he likes the business side.”
So in 1979, when a Missouri Supreme Court decision prompted the Missouri State Tax Commission to order a statewide reassessment of every property in every county, the perfect opportunity arose. From 1981 to 1985 Schauwecker worked full time for the Boone County Assessor’s Office as one of many temporary appraisers assigned to the mass reassessment effort.
“He would work 8 to 5, and they’d be out measuring houses and taking photographs,” Sharon said. “Then they’d have to enter all of information in a database.”
The appraisers worked out of a rented auxiliary building west of where the Walgreen’s on Providence Road stands today.
“It was just a mass appraisal, but he really liked that because he got out into the city and county and met lots of people,” she said.
The incidental networking proved helpful when Schauwecker ran for assessor in 1988 after the incumbent, Don Fenton, decided not to seek re-election. Many appraisers who’d worked with Schauwecker in the reassessment effort offered their support.
Schauwecker found additional support by going door-to-door on weekends and after work (by this time he was working as a fee appraiser).
To this day, Sharon marvels at the number of personal contacts her husband has made throughout the county.
“It amazes me all the time,” she said, “I’ll say, ‘How do you know all these people?’”
Schauwecker was also a close personal friend of Fenton’s, serving as a pallbearer at his funeral after he died in 1989.
Fenton’s passing came less than four months after Schauwecker had taken the oath of office. He soon realized, despite his close work under Fenton from ’81 to ’85 which led him to think he “knew everything about the job,” he, in fact, still had everything to learn.
For instance, after attending a statewide assessors’ conference in St. Louis in 1989, he realized Boone County had been overlooking a statute specifying that the average trade-in value (according to the National Automobile Dealers Association Official Used Car Guide) be used to appraise vehicles.
“We weren’t following the law,” Schauwecker said.
Which came as a surprise to the public official whose mantra now seems to be: “Everything in the office is governed by law.”
Schauwecker’s office desk is within arm’s reach of a bookshelf lined with volumes of the Missouri Revised Statutes.
Ask him any question about the assessor’s office and he’ll spin around in his chair, whisk a book off the shelf, flip to the relevant statute and hold it to your face, ordering you to read aloud from the highlighted text.
It’s a reflex born of Schauwecker’s seriousness and love of the job.
Angie Kemp, a personal property tax clerk who sits at the front of the assessor’s office and sees much of the daily business, agrees that Schauwecker is “passionate about what he does.”
Schauwecker especially loves that no two days are the same and that exciting things happen in real estate. Take, for instance, the downtown Columbia property that sold twice in one day in May 2004, upping its sale price from $355,000 to $425,000 in just a matter of hours. The property had previously been on the market for a year, with an asking price of $375,000. Schauwecker recounts this bit of Boone County lore as if he were telling stories around a campfire.
But unpredictability is also an obstacle to the assessor’s duties, a point Schauwecker drives home, whether on the campaign trail or in his office, by explicating the nature of a perfect market:
“According to my business degree, there are two things that make a perfect market: liquidity and known value,” he says, picking up a copy of the day’s Wall Street Journal and waving it above his head. “I could sell a stock at any time and know exactly what I’m getting for it.”
Schauwecker pounds his desk.
“The stock market is a perfect market.”
On the contrary, the real estate market is imperfect, he says, because homes have neither liquidity nor known value. The downtown property’s turnaround sale in 2004 is perhaps the best illustration of this.
He pounds his desk again.
“The assessor is dealing in an imperfect market with very limited sales information.”
And sometimes he adds:
“I want to be perfect.”
A major obstacle to perfecting appraisals is the fact that Missouri is one of only a few states that doesn’t require public disclosure of home sales prices. Schauwecker thinks nondisclosure impedes the assessor’s ability to make accurate appraisals and often says he would like to see this law changed.
However he thinks he’s probably in the minority, alluding to the unspoken tendency for elected assessors to appraise on the low end of the scale.
But Schauwecker is proud of the ways he has reshaped the office in his five terms, citing first and foremost the geographic information system for Boone County, which launched in February 2004.
The fruit of a five-year, half-million dollar project involving the county, the city of Columbia and the Boone Electric Cooperative, the geographic information system uses digital rectified aerial photography (with photos updated every five years) to allow users to zoom in on specific parcels.
Schauwecker thinks that the project demonstrated the ability of both city and county to cooperate, and that it will give decisionmakers a tool to make better decisions. He also predicts that his role in bringing about the information system will be his legacy in office.
Schauwecker’s greatest legacy outside the office is his family: his parents, who still live in Columbia; his wife, Sharon; and their two children, Kurt, 21, and Anne, 18.
“We are very family-oriented,” Sharon said. “We’ve always been very involved in (our children’s) activities.”
Schauwecker served on the board of Daniel Boone Little League and as a Boy Scouts merit badge counselor (a duty he continues even though Kurt is now grown). He and Sharon also attended Anne’s musical productions and dance recitals throughout her high school career, and they have traveled to watch every one of Kurt’s college cross-country meets (he runs for the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla).
The passion Schauwecker shows for his job is also apparent in his family and community involvement.
Anne, a recent graduate of Hickman, remembers when her dad coached her softball team and drilled the girls in the fundamentals of throwing and correctly holding a ball.
He practiced with Anne in the street, marking off the distance between the pitcher’s mound and home plate.
“He didn’t want them throwing like ‘girls,’” Sharon said.
Anne and her friends were 8 years old at the time.
When Anne was nominated to Hickman’s homecoming court last fall, her dad was the most excited of anyone, she said.
“He told me the day he took me home from the hospital (as a baby), he knew I would be one of those girls in the (homecoming) parade,” Anne said with good-spirited embarrassment.
And before junior prom night, Schauwecker spent the day practicing taking pictures with his old 35mm camera, adjusting the focus.
“He loves those special occasions,” Anne said.
She said he is also “very particular about the way we dress,” which isn’t a problem for Anne, who said she inherited her love of clothes and looking good from her father.
But sometimes Schauwecker’s particularity clashes with his son’s sense of style because Kurt doesn’t care when his clothes don’t match, Anne said.
Recently Kurt tried leaving the house to attend a birthday party at Les Bourgeois, but was delayed when Schauwecker first insisted on finding him an appropriate pair of dress socks.
Schauwecker also enjoys waterfowl hunting, and, with a glow of reverence, he recounts New Year’s Day of this year, when he and some friends hunted just below Easley while toting around a portable TV so they could also watch Mizzou win the Cotton Bowl: a perfect day.
Regarding her husband’s self-described perfectionism, Sharon said: “He does like things to be done at a very high level of competence.”
In addition to feeling constrained by the sales-disclosure law, Schauwecker had felt undue pressure to adhere to a prior version of the school-foundation formula, which would penalize schools when assessments didn’t fall within a certain percentage of fair-market values.
“He could probably spend eight hours explaining it to you in total detail,” Sharon said.
The re-election campaign has also been difficult, not only because the effort has taken over the Schauweckers’ kitchen and living room and has required a professional Web site (not the case 20 years ago) but also because of the nature of the opposition.
When Schauwecker ran for office in 1988, Sharon said, “The election was all about promoting his abilities and showing people that he was the best choice for assessor.”
But this time around, the opposition feels more personal and has taken on a new form with the rise of the Internet.
Nonetheless, the goal remains to stay focused on what Schauwecker does right with the job, she said.
Sharon thinks her husband gets his focus and his desire to do a good job from his parents, whom she describes as civic-minded people who “always tried to instill a sense of hard work in Tom.”
In 1988, Schauwecker’s father helped him campaign, which was especially beneficial because he’d spent his entire career in agriculture and knew many Boone County farmers.
“He worked so hard,” Sharon said of Tom’s father, remembering how he drove around the entire county in his station wagon, hauling around 4-by-8 plywood “Schauwecker” signs.
These days, Schauwecker’s father, now 81, has some health issues that make driving around more difficult, Sharon said. But on a recent weekend, he accompanied Tom and Kurt as they drove around putting up the big green ’08 campaign signs emblazoned with the slogan “He knows the job.”
Schauwecker’s father brought along a folding chair so he could sit down at each location and tell his son and grandson how to better position the signs.
“He wanted to be a part of it,” Sharon said.
It was just “one small step” in Tom Schauwecker’s re-election effort.