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St. Louis County property tax estimates are en route

St. Louis County property tax estimates go in the mail today, and most will include an unpleasant disparity: Home values are down, but tax rates are up.

According to county esti-mates, the overall value of residential, commercial and agricultural property has dropped 8 percent compared with the preliminary assessed values in 2009.

But property tax rates are once again being adjusted upward to make up for the potential lost tax revenue. And a leading driver for the rate hikes is to pay for salary increases for teachers and administrators.

School districts account for more than 60 percent of the average tax bill, and, like most governmental entities, they are able to roll up their tax rates and bring in more money while remaining below their tax ceilings. Staff will get raises next year in such districts as Webster Groves, Pattonville, Kirkwood, Lindbergh, Ferguson-Florissant, Hazelwood, Clayton and Parkway.

In the Rockwood School District, teachers will get raises next year, but salaries were frozen for administrators and support staff. Ladue, meanwhile, offered a 1 percent raise, even as it laid off 28 teachers this year to cope with a budget squeeze.

At least one district, Mehlville, froze salaries next year for teachers and staff, primarily because of reduced state support.

The Lindbergh School District has the largest estimated tax increase in the county, after voters approved a tax hike in November.

Patrick Lanane, assistant superintendent for finance at Lindbergh, said $8.4 million in new revenue from the voter-approved tax increase will be used to operate at current levels, increase staff pay and make a small addition to reserves.

Paul Tandy, spokesman for the Parkway School District, said staff will get raises of 2.99 percent, 2.90 percent and 1.54 percent over the next three years.

"The new agreement keeps us competitive in the market," Tandy said, referring to pay in other St. Louis County districts.

Clayton staff will get raises of 2.5 percent each of the next two years.

Asked whether any consideration had been given to freezing or cutting salaries in light of the sputtering economy, Clayton spokesman Chris Tennill said: "Those are always considerations. But districts need to take steps to keep good teachers in the classrooms."

Michael Podgursky, an economist with the University of Missouri-Columbia, said salaries are creating just part of the financial pressure for districts.

"Pensions have also risen dramatically. The average teacher who retired in 1975 at age 55 would have accumulated about $400,000 in pension wealth. But today, the same teacher will have accrued about $900,000," Podgursky said.

While other revenue sources, such as income and sales taxes, have plummeted in recent years, property taxes have proven to be the most dependable source of income for taxing districts.

Districts "have to get the revenue somewhere. And they've found a dependable source in property taxes," Podgursky said.

Most homeowners will see lower preliminary home values. But the pain will be exacerbated for homeowners whose assessments rise along with the tax rates.

The St. Louis County assessor's office is bracing for calls from homeowners hoping to lower the value of their homes, and thus, their taxes. Recently elected county Assessor Jake Zimmerman said he will make some hires in response to the expected rush of appeals.

"I have just now received approval from the civil service commission to create some new positions related to customer service," Zimmerman said Thursday afternoon.

Informal appeals conferences will be held May 23 through June 13. To make appointments, homeowners should call 314-615-4595.

Final assessment values will not be ready until July, after which homeowners will have a chance to make formal appeals.

Phil Sutin and Elizabethe Holland of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.