Laclede County Should Reduce Its Commercial Property Tax Surcharge
A version of this commentary appeared in the Laclede County Record.
This November, Laclede County residents will vote on reducing an obscure tax that places the county at a competitive disadvantage compared to its neighboring communities.
In 1985 the State of Missouri changed the way local governments tax commercial and industrial property. It eliminated the tax on business merchandise and inventory and replaced it with a surtax on the value of commercial real estate. Every county that year calculated the new surtax (also known as the commercial surcharge) at a revenue-neutral replacement level for the lost business inventory taxes. The change, made by an amendment to the state’s constitution, was explicit that the replacement levy calculated by the counties could be lowered only by voters, not elected officials, and that the surtax would not adjust downward as assessed valuations increased. This provision puts the commercial surtax at odds with most other property taxes in Missouri, for which the tax rate is supposed to go down as assessed valuations go up.
When the rates were established in 1985, Missouri’s economy looked very different than it does today. Kansas City and the City of St. Louis played larger roles than they do today (especially St. Louis). But Laclede County, likely because of inventory taxes generated by its role as a regional manufacturing hub, bucked the trend toward low surtax rates in most counties. It set its surtax rate at $1.03 per $100 of assessed valuation. That is the 14th-highest rate among Missouri’s 115 counties, and much higher than those of its neighboring counties. By comparison, Texas County has a commercial surtax rate of $0.68, Wright’s is $0.66, Pulaski’s is $0.49, Webster’s is $0.37, Dallas’s is $0.31, and Camden’s surtax is a miniscule $0.03.
Assessed valuations have grown enormously since the tax was introduced. For example, the commercial assessments in Laclede County have gone up almost 400 percent between 1985 and 2021, from $23 million to $108 million, yet the surtax rate has never been reduced to offset that increase. The combination of a high tax rate and the difficulty of reducing it puts Laclede County at a competitive disadvantage compared to other counties in its area.
To address this problem, the Laclede County Commission decided in August to propose lowering Laclede County’s surtax rate from $1.03 to $0.51. If passed by voters, this notable reduction in the commercial surtax rate would both spur economic activity in Laclede County and reduce the perceived need for tax subsidies. In general, Laclede County and its municipalities have been hesitant to use tax subsidies to selectively benefit a small number of businesses. That is to be commended. If this surtax cut passes, the county and its cities can remain focused on setting good policies and low tax rates for everyone, not special deals for a few.
The Lebanon R-3 school district has come out in opposition to this tax reduction, projecting a loss of $275,000 from the tax cut out of total revenues of $58 million. That is just $60 per student in a district that spends over $12,500 per student and one that received over $4 million in federal stimulus funds for a now-past economic emergency. Beyond that, personal property taxes for the school district (e.g., car and boat taxes) are expected to come in significantly higher than ever before due to the dramatic increase in used car values. In short, Lebanon R-3, like many taxing districts around Missouri, has more money than it knows what to do with, yet the district is opposing a tax cut to help grow business and jobs in Laclede County.
As Laclede County continues to grow and commercial assessed valuations continue to increase, actual revenue reductions for local governments that receive the tax money will be small. That’s not voodoo economics; it simply reflects expected growth in population, business, and assessed valuation.
Laclede County leaders deserve credit for placing this surtax reduction proposal on the ballot this November so voters can have a say in making their community more economically competitive. If approved, this reasonable and beneficial tax cut will help grow Laclede County’s economy, and everyone benefits from that.