Counties, Not Cities, Should Determine TIFs
A 2007 change to state law granting more authority to county tax increment financing (TIF) commissions within the Saint Louis-area, at the expense of municipal TIF commissions, has led cities within Saint Louis County to initiate a lawsuit attempting to overturn the change. The suit was filed on Feb. 15 by six cities along with their umbrella organization, the Saint Louis County Municipal League. Municipalities within Saint Louis and Saint Charles counties have been enacting tax incentives, particularly TIF, with much greater frequency — and much less fiscal prudence — than the counties themselves. Unfortunately, if this lawsuit succeeds, the detrimental impact of these tax giveaways will continue unimpeded.
In fairness to the cities, the changes to the law are indeed unclear. An open reading makes one wonder whether any future TIF projects must be passed by both a municipal and county TIF commission, or just one of the two. According to lawyers familiar with the issue, bonds for upcoming projects will not be issued until these questions are settled. While I have no personal objection to seeing our area’s latest strip mall proposal face bonding problems, the General Assembly should nonetheless return to the statute language (RSMo 99.820) to rectify these issues. It should clarify the statute in the direction of more authority at the county level, though, and less at the municipal level.
Which level of government should really be making these decisions about tax increment financing or other types of tax incentives? The debate tends to weigh two sides: cities that presumably know what is best for their city and their residents, or higher levels of authority that can hopefully consider the larger picture — which generally affects much more than just the cities. I believe the county level works best here. After all, county government is local government by every measure. I trust that the powers that be in Saint Louis County are not so far removed in their Clayton skyscrapers that they have no idea what is best for the people of Saint Ann.
Counties are also large enough to put proposed tax incentives into perspective, making decisions outside of a municipal vacuum. If these incentive decisions were made at the county level, cities would no longer face the fear and pressure to “remain competitive” with surrounding cities by issuing generous incentives. Cities would certainly maintain a voice in the process, along with school districts, through rotating appointments on the county TIF commission that would be determined by the locations of future proposals.
In their lawsuit, the cities claim that the new statute is unconstitutional because it treats Saint Charles, Saint Louis, and Jefferson counties differently from the state’s other counties. This claim strikes me as absurd. Our statutes contain numerous laws written especially for one county or another. Because the lawsuit involves six cities from Saint Louis County, I’ll give two — out of many — examples where Saint Louis County is treated differently from the rest of the state. The legal process for municipal annexations and incorporations is different, and more controlled, in Saint Louis County than elsewhere, and only taxing districts in Saint Louis County are allowed to declare varying tax rates for multiple property classifications. Are these laws, and the many others like them involving cities and counties throughout the state, all also unconstitutional?
If judges and elected officials ultimately determine the commission power rests at the county level, we could expect an end to TIFs and similar giveaways in Saint Charles, and a reduction in their use in Saint Louis and Jefferson counties. The tremendous fiscal discipline shown by Saint Charles, while still experiencing great economic growth, demonstrates why these decisions should be made at the county level. And while it has not been quite as sagacious as Saint Charles, Saint Louis County has been more discriminating in its use of incentives than have many of the municipalities within its borders.
All of the prominent abuses of TIF in Saint Louis County — most famously at the West County Mall — have occurred within municipalities, rather than in the unincorporated areas. Similarly, the ugly case of tax incentives and eminent domain abuse that was recently heard by the state Supreme Court occurred in the city of Arnold — not unincorporated Jefferson County. I believe the residents of all three counties would be better served by having countywide commissions and elected county officials responsible for tax incentive determinations.
David Stokes is a policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute, a Missouri-based think tank.