Perry County Should Reduce Its Commercial Property Tax Surcharge
In 1985, Missouri changed the way that local governments tax commercial and industrial property. Voters approved eliminating the personal property tax on business merchandise and inventory and replacing it with a surcharge on the value of commercial real estate. That year, each Missouri county calculated its new surcharge at a revenue-neutral level of replacement for the discontinued business property taxes. Among the reasons for the change was a desire to base the tax on the value of real estate, which is more consistent than ever-fluctuating inventories. The change was enacted through an amendment to the Missouri Constitution, and that amendment stated explicitly that the replacement levy calculated by the counties could not be raised. However, the change also mandated that only voters—not local elected officials—could reduce the tax. Similarly, the commercial surcharge is at odds with the mechanics of other property taxes in Missouri, which have tax rates that fall as assessed valuations rise. The surcharge tax rate (also called the surtax) remains at the same level, even as assessments increase.
The timing of this change is important. In 1985, Perry County set its rate at $1.06 per $100 of assessed commercial valuation. This is a much higher rate than other counties in the region. Perry County has long had a strong manufacturing base, and it is likely that those industrial companies generated substantial inventory taxes that necessitated—at the time—a high surcharge replacement tax rate. By comparison, Bollinger County’s rate is much lower, at $0.13, St. Francois’ rate is a mere $0.20, St. Genevieve is just above that at $0.21, Madison’s rate is $0.25, and Cape Girardeau tops out the rest of the area at $0.37. Perry County is almost triple the surcharge tax rate for its region.
Assessed valuations have grown enormously since the tax was introduced. For example, in 1986 (the first year after the current assessment system was implemented) the total assessed valuation of Perry County was $84 million and $11 million of that was commercial property. As of the most recent reassessment in 2021, the total assessed valuation of Perry County is $404 million, with $74 million being commercial (an increase in commercial valuation of more than 500 percent). The surcharge rate has never been reduced to offset that significant rise in commercial assessed valuation, as happens with other property taxes. The combination of a high tax rate and the difficulty involved with reducing it puts Perry County at a competitive disadvantage with the rest of the region in 2022.
This is a problem, but a problem without blame. These differences were probably not a big deal in 1985, when the tax alteration described earlier had a neutral effect for Missouri businesses. But it is a major problem now. Reducing rates as commercial assessments rise is simply an issue of fairness. It would not lead to a tax revenue decrease but would simply mean treating the commercial surcharge like other property taxes in Missouri.
Another issue with reducing the tax might be more complicated. Lowering the commercial surcharge rate could both spur economic activity and reduce the perceived need for tax incentives. Frankly, from a government revenue perspective, many of the dollars lost to the surcharge reduction could be replaced by a reduction in the tax incentives that have been given to select businesses. Perry County and Perryville have each engaged in harmful tax subsidies like tax-increment financing. Reducing the surcharge rate for all businesses while eliminating the use of tax subsidies for a few, select businesses would be a public policy win–win for Perry County.
The elected officials in Perry County should place surcharge tax reduction proposals on the ballot so that voters can have a say in making their region more economically competitive. The state legislature should then authorize a vote on changing the Missouri Constitution to allow the commercial surcharge to be reduced as assessments increase, like other property taxes. These two changes would help grow the economies of both Perry County and Missouri, and everyone benefits from that.