The Missouri Times spoke with Jake Zimmerman for series of Q&A’s with lawmakers on the unfolding events in Ferguson. Zimmerman is a former state representative from the north part of St. Louis County who was elected to St. Louis County Assessor in 2011.
What is the background of the St. Louis County Assessor’s office? I read that you’re the first one elected since about the 1960s.
That’s right – since 1961. This was an office that had been run by bureaucrats for multiple generations. There was controversy going back 10 years now about drive by assessments and other shenanigans. That resulted in some public pressure and a movement that said, “Maybe we should elect someone again who is more accountable for the office.” The good people of St. Louis County in 2010 voted to make the position elected again and that triggered a special election in 2011. That’s how I wound up running for this job.
Living and working in the North County area, what impact has Ferguson had on your constituents?
I think it goes without saying that the whole situation is a tragedy. The thing that I can say that I have seen during my time in this office is that property values flow directly from what is going on in the community and how people feel about a community as a place to live. For example, there are many parts of North and South County that were devastated by foreclosures during the economic and real estate crisis – particularly back in 2011 and 2012. Where you see foreclosures and where you see neighborhoods hurting and where you see an economic disconnect between the population and the people that own property – bad things follow. Property values are tied to the strength of neighborhoods and tied to the quality of schools and all this flows together.
What I would say about Ferguson in addition to the fact of what is going on now — aside from that this is the entire community and will require us all to work together — is that strong, stable neighborhoods are the foundation of a trustful and diverse community. The essential foundation of good schools and having public services like a police force and first responders who have respect — all those flow together. One thing that I really want to see North County and all of St. Louis County do a better job at is working to solve the foreclosure crisis that has affected those neighborhoods. All those issues are interlocked together.
What can counties – particularly St. Louis County – learn from this situation?
We’re all interconnected. Think back to before the current crisis situation, what was the crisis affecting North County? It was the state takeover of Normandy School District — before that, it was the River View Gardens School District. I think there was a time when it might have been pretty easy for someone living in a different part of town to say, “Hey, look, that’s not my problem. I don’t need to worry about it.” When you see kids transferring to other schools to get a decent education and all the community turmoil that results from that, it sends a message home: It’s everyone’s problem.
The same thing is true of Ferguson. What happened in 1 of the 90 municipalities in St. Louis County happens to all of us. If our community gets a black eye in the view of national media, that affects property values and everything else and all of us in this region. It seems to me that we need to do a better job as a region to try and address our challenges together because there are so many elements to all of this. It’s not just a story about one police department. It’s not just a story about one particular entity. It is also a story about property values. It’s also a story about local communities. It’s also a story about public education. None of us have the luxury of saying, “I live in Clayton” or “I live in Ladue” or “I don’t need to worry about that. We do need to worry about it. Our community and our regional governments need to be responsive.
Having experience in the state legislature, what do you think the state can do to alleviate tensions in situations like these?
I think the state has an important role to play. The Governor demonstrated that when he appointed Capt. Johnson of the Highway Patrol to come in at a particularly tense moment. The state needs to work well with regional and local governments – sometimes that happens and sometimes it doesn’t.
My frustration when I went to Jefferson City is that oftentimes the legislature would rather order local institutions around rather than give local governments the tools that local governments need to get things done. There’s a delicate balance here and you hope that the state can help in a responsible way, but you also have to worry that legislative meddling can make problems worse.
You have an opponent in the general election. Can you tell me a little about your campaign and what makes you the best choice for St. Louis County Assessor?
I ran on a platform of fairness, accountability, independence, and responsiveness. I think that is what people were looking for after 50 years of an office that was run by bureaucratic leadership that wasn’t always so accountable and wasn’t always so responsive.
I’m pretty proud of my record on that score. We found people that were gaming the system, whether it was fake farmers in West County who sprinkled some winter wheat seeds on the parking lot and said, “Hey, look – this is a farm, give me an agricultural tax credit.” Whether it is those guys, or casinos looking for way falls that they don’t deserve. Whether it is fake nonprofits pretending to do charity to get a tax deduction when they really aren’t doing charity. Those sorts of things, people have a right to expect.
People have a right to expect that if they pay their fair share, the assessor is going to fight to make sure everyone else pays their fair share. They have a right to expect an office that answers their phone call and gives them a response to their questions. They have a right to expect that their home is valued at what they can actually sell it for. They have a right to expect an office that treats everyone the same, whether their property is $50,000 or $5 million.
I think we’ve done a pretty good job keeping those promises. I also think there is more work to do. I’m pretty proud of my record, even in the times that we had to pick a fight. I’m going to keep doing what I can and I look forward to the voter’s judgment on that.
You have quite the resume. Do you have any future plans beyond assessor?
I’ve got to worry about getting elected in November. I’ll tell you my big future plan – my first child, my baby son, Gabriel, was born about 10 days ago.
Thank you! Maybe not the most ideal timing, but no one ever said the Zimmermans were masters of timing. If you want to know what my future plans are, they involve a lot of poopy diapers.
Photos courtesy of Jake Zimmerman.
Rachael Herndon was the editor at The Missouri Times and also produced This Week in Missouri Politics, published Missouri Times Magazine, and co-hosted the #MoLeg podcast. She joined The Missouri Times in 2014, returning to political reporting after working as a campaign and legislative staffer.
Rachael studied at the University of Missouri – Columbia. She lives in Jefferson City with her husband, Brandon, and their two children.