Bill McClellan on Property Taxes and Country Clubs
I am a huge Bill McClellan fan. For those of you outside of St. Louis who are not familiar with him, he is the primary columnist for the Post-Dispatch. My stepfather is a friend of his, and I have had the pleasure of meeting him a few times, including going to a Cards-Cubs game with him a few years ago.
McCellan had a very interesting column this past weekend, about how the state assesses golf course property. He claimed that state officials are “subsidizing” private country clubs by charging lower taxes than they charge for public courses. This is a very exciting topic for geeks like me, because the nexus of property taxation and country club golf is something I am well qualified to write about.
This question is similar to the debate we have had in the comments sections of other posts about tax incentives and abatements. One view — let’s call it the “low taxes at all costs” view — is that lower taxes are always good, in every case, for anyone, for whatever reason. Another view, which I generally hold, is that taxes should be low, but that they should also be as evenly spread out as possible — a view which can, in certain instances (like TIF), lead to arguments against lower taxes for certain taxpayers in favor of lower taxes across the board.
Golf courses in Missouri are assessed at the residential property rate of 19 percent — except for municipal courses, which are tax exempt, as McClellan states. The dispute at the heart of his column is that country club property other than the course itself, such as a clubhouse, is also taxed at the residential rate, while public course property, like a driving range, is taxed at the commercial rate of 32 percent.
How do these differences work out in practice? Tower Tee, the public par-three course in Affton — which lies at the heart of McCellan’s column, and which almost every St. Louisan is aware of — paid $77,692 in property taxes for 28 acres during 2008, according to St. Louis County public records. It paid those taxes on an appraisal of $3,162,700 — about 85 percent of that in the commercial classification.
Glen Echo Country Club, in nearby north St. Louis County, paid $65,128 in property taxes on 130 acres, with an appraisal of $3,252,800 — all residential.
Westborough Country Club, in the Webster-Kirkwood area, paid $95,057 on 73 acres and an appraised value of $7,476,600 — almost all of that at the residential rate.
So, the total tax bill for Tower Tee does not seem out of line or unfairly high here. Consider that the main reason it is smaller than the bills for other courses is that it’s a par-three course. If it were a full-sized course, that land would be taxed at the lower residential rate.
The general consensus among those I discussed this with here at the Show-Me Institute was that the overall rates should be equalized, and that the total property for all golf courses should be taxed at the lower residential rate. Some thought that a land-heavy use such as a golf course deserves some type of general tax reduction, so as not to price the game out of the ability of most people to play. This sort of falls in line with how we all agreed it made sense to tax agricultural property at an even lower rate than residential or commercial, at 12 percent.
While I have no problem with lowering the tax rates on public golf courses, I was somewhat alone in disagreeing with McClellan by not seeing anything wrong with the current situation. One of the differences between commercial and residential assessments is that the former aren’t set just based on market value, the way homes are. Commercial assessments can be set several ways, and one of the most common methods involves expected income generation. A popular driving range like Tower Tee is going to generate a substantial cash income, and that is one reason its commercial assessment is so high. It would be unrealistic to attempt to assess the property of country clubs in that fashion, because they are not trying to generate a profit from their property. Although commercial property can be assessed by market value of the land, the primary alternative use for land golf course land is to turn it into housing developments, so perhaps that’s an argument in favor of applying the residential rate.
The most important thing to me is that the clubs, even as non-profit entities, are still paying substantial property taxes — as they should be. They all have to compete against municipal courses, which pay no taxes at all. I hardly think the rest of
us you are subsidizing country club membership just because state law sets their property tax rate at 19 percent. Again, though, I see nothing wrong with lowering the rates for public courses, too, in the interest of equity.
Then again, maybe Rodney Dangerfield was right in what he said about country clubs. (Scroll down about 49 clips.)