David Stokes
The Post-Dispatch had an excellent article Monday about the city's issues with such a sizable proportion of land in St. Louis being owned by nonprofit entities, and thereby exempt from property taxation. The article discusses in detail the phenomenon of payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs), which you frequently find in St. Louis County but not very often in the city. (I believe the Cardinals are making PILOTs to the city school district in exchange for their Ballpark Village TIF.) 

When I worked at the St. Louis County Council for Councilman (now judge) Kurt Odenwald, he chaired the council's Revenue and Personnel Committee, which had as its primary role the study of tax exemption issues. You might be surprised to know that there is no hard-and-fast state law governing what gets to be exempt and what doesn't. While it is obvious that a church or school is exempt, what about a nursing home that sets aside 5 percent of its rooms for charity cases? In cases like that, it is often up to the county in which the facility resides as to whether it is tax exempt. Sometimes, a promise by the applicant to make PILOTs that partially make up for the lost taxes can be an important factor in the county's decision. I really remember this one example cited in the Post article:
Closer to home, Lutheran Senior Services, a nonprofit, gives Webster Groves $28,000 a year[.]

I remember it so well because when Lutheran Senior Services decided to make the first PILOTs to the city, school district, library district, and county, they didn't know how to go about doing it, so they just mailed all the checks to Councilman Odenwald's office. The next day, I had to hand-deliver all these substantial checks to various government officials — who were, not surprisingly, very happy to see me. (The process of making the payments was clarified the next year.)

A very important point in the story is found near the end:
He said cities that have an earnings tax typically don't have PILOTs. Detroit and Pittsburgh are two exceptions.

I'll point out that Pittsburgh depends primarily on its property — especially land — taxes, so tax exemption is particularly noticeable there. And I think that generally you always want to do the opposite of what Detroit does. Of course, St. Louis County has no earnings tax, so the PILOTs are more understandable there. (Do you ever notice that nobody ever expresses concerns about city residents who work in the county being free riders in the county? Why does it only come up as a defense of the earnings tax?)

My basic belief is that nonprofits generally receive the same services everyone else does, so I see nothing automatically wrong with them being required to pay some type of property tax. Although the Post article focuses on large nonprofits, I think it is the small nonprofits (the ones without their own security forces) that genuinely use government services like everyone else. But I would only really support these efforts if they entail broadening the property tax base so that the overall rate can be lowered — not as an excuse to raise additional taxes or fix a budget hole. Beyond that, I would only support something like it in St. Louis or Kansas City if the earnings tax is eliminated. But if that were to happen, I think requiring nonprofits to pay some type of property or land tax would be reasonable.

About the Author

David Stokes
David Stokes was a policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute from 2007 to 2014 and was director of development from 2014 to 2016.