The freezing of property tax assessments for Missourians 62 and older looks, at best, fuzzy.
The state adopted a law this year that lets counties give that property tax assessment freeze when homeowners become eligible for Social Security. And it allowed counties to throw in a yearly tax credit to give older residents even more tax relief.
But counties don’t yet fully understand the new rules. Local leaders have called the language “poorly designed” and “very ill-written.”
So far, five counties including Jackson have decided to freeze property assessments under the new law. Commissioners in other counties say they’ll follow suit — when they better understand what they can or can’t do.
Meanwhile, various taxing districts wonder about the cost to their budgets. Capping property assessments for older taxpayers means running schools, libraries, police forces and other public services with less money, or leaning more heavily on younger property owners to make up the difference.
Lawmakers — lobbied by confused local officials — say some clarification could come when they meet again next year.
Losing tax revenue
Jackson, Greene and St. Charles counties — three of the biggest in the state — have passed versions of the assessment freeze. Lawmakers in St. Louis County refined a proposal last week and will take a final vote this week.
But freezing property assessments comes with a cost: a loss of future tax revenue.
St. Louis County Councilwoman Lisa Clancy said that worries her.
“I am concerned about the impact, mostly to public education and libraries,” she said, “but also to other public safety functions like fire.”
The St. Louis County measure mimics what Jackson County did by limiting the tax break to homes valued at $550,000 or less.
But Clancy worries a home-value cap could make the measure more inequitable. Areas with lower property values already have smaller tax bases to pay for things like schools and fire departments. And she said younger residents shouldn’t be overburdened to spare retirees.
“You’re pitting grandparents against their grandchildren and schools that have been financially struggling for years,” she said.
At the same time, counties worry that giving older homeowners a tax break could make local governments more reliant on younger taxpayers whose property tax burdens will continue to get bigger.
Dennis Ganahl, the managing director of MO Tax Relief Now, which advocates for tax breaks for seniors, said that clarity about the new law could come in revisions from the General Assembly in the spring.
Ganahl said he is in talks with 26 counties about passing an assessment freeze. Another three counties, including Boone and Franklin counties, may put the question to voters.
Instead of automatically freezing a property assessment, he argues that homeowners should submit applications for the tax break.
“If somebody feels they’re too wealthy to apply for the tax-free, they don’t have to,” he said. “But if somebody feels that they do need the tax (break), there will be an application.”
In Jackson County, seniors who want the freeze will need to submit an application heading into the 2024 tax year.
In Greene County, the first in the state to pass a freeze, 90% of the library’s funding comes from property taxes. Regina Greer Cooper, the executive director of the Springfield-Greene County Library District, wants local leaders to wait for legislative revisions.
“There is no way for us to make an educated projection of how much this will affect us,” she said. “It is very vague and unclear as to who is eligible and what kind of credit it may be.”
Who’s eligible for a property tax assessment freeze?
The law lays out a number of tweaks to Missouri tax code intended to provide relief for older homeowners who may be on fixed incomes. It lets counties freeze assessments for a person’s primary residence if they are eligible for Social Security.
But county leaders are unsure who exactly qualifies.
Some counties, like Clay County, say that tying eligibility for the tax break to Social Security eligibility could leave out people on some pensions, like retired teachers or railroad workers. Clay County formed a task force to figure out how they could pass a measure. In Platte County, county lawmakers are discussing a version of their own.
“We definitely want to make sure that all seniors get the opportunity to be able to take advantage of this,” said Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte. “That’s a huge deal to us.”
In the meantime, Clancy said, county commissions that haven’t frozen assessments under the new law feel pressure to act. And older voters traditionally have higher voter turnout.
“We’re getting criticized because we are spending time on it, but the state legislature didn’t,” she said. “There’s so many things about this policy that have left us all across the state interpreting it in different ways.”
But Ganahl, speaking for the group lobbying for property tax breaks for older homeowners, said counties can act now.
“We think the bill is very clear. It says you’re eligible when you’re old enough to apply for Social Security benefits — today that age is 62,” he said. “It does not say that you have to be receiving Social Security. It doesn’t say that only Social Security recipients can receive it.”
But some county officials see a far murkier law that could trigger lawsuits.
“We risk the provisions that are compromises being thrown out and then having to revert back to just the bare-bones, across-the-board tax cut,” Clancy said.
Critics of the law change say it was rushed through the legislature. In Gasconade County in June, the county collector described the law as “kind of rammed through” the General Assembly and “very ill-written.” In Cape Girardeau County in September, the presiding commissioner said the language was “poorly-designed and poorly-executed.”
Even the anti-tax Show-Me Institute has criticisms of the law and the way it was rolled out.
David Stokes, the group’s director of municipal policy, wrote in testimony against a proposal in Camden County.
“This bill is every bit as much of a tax increase on non-senior citizens as it is tax relief for some senior citizens,” Stokes said.
“Giving one sector of the population — senior citizens (and the wealthiest sector at that) — a special tax deal is a terrible idea,” Stokes wrote in another post.
This article first appeared on The Beacon.