At issue in the 2008 primary race for Boone County Assessor is a change that took place in 2005.
Every year the Boone County assessor's office processes more than 50,000 personal property declarations, many for trucks and automobiles. But in 2005 the declaration forms began asking taxpayers for their vehicle identification numbers, or VINs, which are unique, 17-character serial numbers found on dashboards. VINs allow officials and the automotive industry to keep detailed records of each vehicle's history and options - such as navigator systems, leather seats and four-wheel drive.
Before the change to the VIN system, property tax declaration forms requested the make, model and year of each vehicle. But Assessor Tom Schauwecker, who has held the office since 1989 and implemented the change, thinks using VIN-based methodology allows fairer and more accurate vehicle appraisals. He said a simple question "crystallizes" the issue:
"Should a $25,000 vehicle pay the same taxes as a $40,000 vehicle?" he asked. For example, he said, a 2008 Ford F-150 truck could range in value between $25,000 and $40,000, depending on the options it has.
But Barb Bishop, who is challenging Schauwecker in the Aug. 5 primary, has concerns about the VIN methodology. She objects primarily to the fact that Schauwecker's office implemented it "without talking to anybody" and that taxpayers weren't notified of the change. She pointed out that utility companies routinely notify consumers of rate increases.
At a candidates' forum in June, Bishop said that her 10-year-old Jeep "just got more expensive in taxes."
Bishop said that if elected, she would reassess the VIN methodology to "make sure it was really doing what it needed to do." She also thinks the Missouri State Tax Commission should take a look at other options, such as using the sales price at the time of purchase and licensing.
Bishop noted that at several candidate forums, Schauwecker has been "confusing the issue" when it comes to explaining what the law requires.
"He has said that he's following the law by using the VIN method. That's not true," Bishop said.
Both Schauwecker and Bishop have acknowledged that Missouri statutes require assessors to base vehicle appraisals on average trade-in value, as listed in the annual October issue of the National Automobile Dealers Association Used Car Guide.
Soon after Schauwecker took office in September 1989, he realized his predecessor hadn't been following the Used Car Guide method but instead relied on a system Schauwecker was never able to decode. His predecessor died in December 1989.
"There was a method; he just wasn't around to explain it to me," Schauwecker said.
When the used car guide method was implemented in 1990, Schauwecker said, the assessed value of personal property in the county rose by 39.53 percent from the previous year. Many taxpayers complained of tax increases, but "there wasn't anything we could do," Schauwecker said. "The law is real clear in this instance."
Schauwecker said he did send notice-of-change letters in 1990 even though he was not required to do so.
Between 1990 and 2004, the office heard from vehicle owners who felt they were being taxed unfairly. Schauwecker recalls a complaint from a fireman whose vehicle was worth $15,000 but was paying the same taxes as a co-worker whose vehicle, which was the same make and model, was worth twice as much because it was loaded with options.
Those sorts of complaints prompted Schauwecker and his staff to adopt the VIN method.
Randy Turley, chief counsel for the Missouri State Tax Commission, said that while VIN is not mentioned in the statutes, "there's nothing illegal about it."
"It's more than valid; it's probably the best way to value that property," he said.
In October 2004, Schauwecker updated his office's software so that by 2005 the personal property tax clerks could enter VINs to appraise taxpayers' vehicles. The initial overhaul cost about $18,000, and subsequent updates cost about $15,000 each year, according to Schauwecker and Chief Deputy Assessor Jacki Davidson.
Turley said that to the best of his knowledge, Boone is the only one of Missouri's 114 counties that uses VIN methodology.
"Most counties probably don't have the resources for that type of system," Turley said.
Schauwecker and Davidson think the new appraisal method is more precise than the Used Car Guide appraisals, ensuring that taxpayers won't pay more or less than their fair share.
"Before it didn't matter," Davidson said. "The people who had the fancy vehicles and the people who had the plain-Jane models were all paying the same price."
To illustrate this point, Schauwecker's campaign Web site invites voters to go online and "check out" his own 2008 personal property valuation: He and his family own two different 1998 Toyota Tacomas; one is valued at $8,200 and the other at $4,200. The VIN method makes the distinction.
"Is it politically popular? No," Schauwecker said. "Fair? Absolutely."
Since the 2005 implementation, Davidson said the office has received a few complaints from people with "really, really expensive cars."
"They're the ones who've got the navigator system, and they've got the leather seats and everything," Davidson said.
Between 2004 and 2005, when the change was implemented, the assessed value of all personal property in Boone County rose 12.4 percent. Schauwecker said he didn't think it was necessary to send notice-of-change forms in 2005 because they're not required by the Missouri State Tax Commission.
While Bishop acknowledged that "most people feel that it's fair to assess vehicles for their different characteristics," she said the public deserves to know how such changes will affect their taxes and to verify that correct information is being used.