Tuesday, December 13, 2011

PROPERTY TAX OUTRAGE: Readers scorn deep developer discounts

Millions of dollars of development and estate land brings in just $2,363.26 in yearly BoCoMo property taxes 

COLUMBIA, 12/13/11  (Op-Ed) --  "Amazing and disheartening," is how David Stokes, a policy analyst at one of Missouri's leading conservative think tanks, characterizes Boone County's ridiculously generous property tax breaks for the area's richest and most powerful residents and businesses.

Other Heart Beat readers feel the same way.  They have no problem paying their fair share of taxes, but scorn the idea that so-called "one percenters" -- the country's wealthiest individuals and businesses -- pay virtually nothing, the highest form of collusion with donation-hungry public officials. 

I'm a big fan of our capitalist system when it works without collusion between government and wealthy individuals or big businesses, an ever-increasing problem as government takes a larger share of the domestic product pie and powerful people move in to manipulate the results.

Nationally, GE paid no income taxes on some $14 billion in profits last year.  Locally, large donors to the re-election campaign of Boone County assessor Tom Schauwecker -- ironically, a Democrat -- get property tax breaks in proportion to their wealth, first revealed after the 2008 elections.   

Now, with four years of tax records to look back upon, those same one percenters are paying a mere $59.01 more than they were in 2007 -- a single property tax increase for the other 99% -- on millions of dollars of development and estate land that together brought in just $2,363.26 in 2011 property taxes.

About our tongue-in-cheek take on Boone County's giant government-aided collusion, Fred and Ann Koenig quipped that they'd like to help the Kroenkes, Lauries, Sapps, Smiths, Forum Development, and the rest pay that $59 increase.  "We should come together to help them out with their increased burden during these economically challenging times," they wrote.  "Maybe we could have a bake sale, and send them the proceeds?"

Other readers suggested more direct action.  "I would like to know who to start calling if these folks are getting off yet again," Linda Lutz wrote.  "I'd like to make a stink." 

CMNEA teachers union president Susan McClintic, who also teaches at Alpha Hart Lewis elementary, found the news sad enough to recommend an alternative.  "If you are looking for some positive news, it is American Education week and the Columbia Missouri National Education Association (CMNEA) encourages everyone to read a book to a child this week to honor educators!"

"Honor educators."  How ironic, given that educators are those most hurt by property tax breaks for the powerful.

But wait!  Perhaps those generous tax breaks are development incentives, like TIFs and TDDs.  Perhaps those breaks are designed to help the economy, through some vague "trickle down" effect.   If that's what they are, the property tax breaks don't impress musician Win Grace, who thanked us for reporting the story.   "In my opinion, it wouldn't hurt to slow down development," she said.

In another irony, Stokes -- a St. Louis-based policy analyst for the Show Me Institute, arguably Missouri's most aggressive anti-tax lobbyists routinely criticized by the public sector -- made a salient legal point:  property tax breaks this generous are designed for farmers, not developers or estate barons.

"The question becomes, how many of those properties are being actively farmed or used for some agricultural purpose?" he said.  "Property tax bills that low are only really possible for active farmland."  

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