Failure of Fragmentation: Aug 8 Tax Hikes On St. Louis County Ballot

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big taxes

Another election is coming up (a special one at that) and that means more tax increases on the ballot to prop up fragmentation in St. Louis County. The April 2016, August 2016, November 2016, and April 2017 ballots included several tax increases and bond issues. The next ballot looks much the same.

Fragmentation and low-productivity auto-oriented development patterns are synergizing in the St. Louis area, driving up the per capita cost of government services, transportation, infrastructure, and utilities. Despite $100Ms in opportunity costs and a soft tax base under our current approach, municipal leaders are thinking inside the box to keep their budgets balanced. There are no mergers or disincorporations on the ballot.

  • Bel-Ridge (Pop. 2,724)- Authority to levy a parking license fee tax up to $15 per space (not a bad idea everywhere!)
  • Bel-Ridge (Pop. 2,724)- Authority to levy up to 0.65 (currently 0.35) per $100 assessed on commercial property
  • Overland (Pop. 15,985)- increase the property tax rate from $0.12 to $0.24 for residential, from $0.12 to $0.36 for commercial, and from $0.12 to $0.36 for personal property per $100 of assessed value
  • St. Ann (Pop. 12,971)- A Transportation Development District (TDD) for the entire city with a sales tax increase of 1%

St. Ann (and Crestwood) used to be a winner in the sales tax chase. The city relied upon shoppers from outside the city to pay sales taxes for decades. Since Northwest Plaza closed the math doesn’t work anymore. It may never work given its low-productivity spread-out development pattern. The city tried to make up for the losses with traffic tickets (Fine and fee revenues soared from less than $1M in 2009 to $2.6M in 2014). Voters passed a property tax increase to the maximum allowed amount in April by 21 points. Maybe this time it’ll be enough.

We’ve set up a scheme resembling Enron-style accounting where debt and liabilities are hidden in subsidiaries (municipalities). Those liabilities are piling up, and we pretend they will be confined to those municipalities forever. Do we let the system unravel on its own where munis hold on until the bitter end and dump those liabilities onto the county or do we come together before the bill gets even worse?

August 8, 2017 St. Louis County Sample Ballot

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  • MidtownBill

    The entire St. Louis region has such a uniquely divisive mindset that is rooted in blind political attitudes, generalizations, and fear. Almost everyone that I grew up around out in St. Charles had this stubborn attitude that the city was a crumbling mess full of nothing but “thugs and criminals,” and they wanted nothing to do with it. Yet all of those same county folk go out into the world and say “I’m from St. Louis.” It is a quintessentially contradictory attitude that drives a wedge between people and contributes to this growing sense of distance between the people of the region (both literally and figuratively). What does it say about our region that so many people think St. Charles county has a better future than the city of St. Louis??

    It’s a lack of ownership in this region, no one wants to take the responsibility of helping to be part of a larger common good, an effort to restore our city in a growing global economy. Thriving, dense cities are the future; to deny that is flat out ignorant. For some reason, especially out in the far reaches of the counties, the idea of the city is always associated with some sort of “liberal threat to society.” Call it a generalization, but I’ve heard the same thing too often from so many people who are afraid of a merger with the city simply because they think it’s some sort of inherent “big government takeover.”

    • Matthew W. Hall

      The answer of for St. Louis city to cut lose the burbs. St. Louis needs to focus on its own economic development at all costs and then suburbanites will want a piece of the action. If you can’t join ’em, beat ’em.

      • rgbose

        They already do by owning property and holding jobs in the city

        • Matthew W. Hall

          How do we know who owns what and works where? Do you have any info. that helps to show that?

          • rgbose

            You can look up properties on the Assessor’s website and see the owner’s address.

            I can’t find the stat of what percentage of the earnings tax is paid by non-residents. Maybe someone else on here has it.

          • Matthew W. Hall

            I’m well aware of the assessor’s site. It would take months of hard work to create a database of who owns what by place of legal residency. I was just wondering if you knew of anyone who had done that work .

          • rgbose

            You can download the Assessor’s database. You could compare zip codes of owners’ for inside/outside the city. Though you’ll have some trouble with the zip codes that straddle the border. And the LLCs obscure where the owner lives.

            http://data.stlouis-mo.gov/downloads/prcl.zip

    • STLrainbow

      Your comment reminds me of how foolish STL County folks were for supporting the Page Ave. Extension from 270 to St. Chuck’s Co..,, that was a ticket to steal population and retail from the County and further our regional sprawl. STL County needs to get its act together on planning. City, too. Making a real commitment to TOD around Metrolink would be a good start.

  • WikiWild

    The idiots in Chesterfield and the like who are unequivocally opposed to any discussion of merging services are going to be in the same boat as these poor folks in North County who depended on sales taxes for revenues. It is very short-sighted to think that booming development in the outer counties will continue in the future. Looking across the US, cities are thriving and suburbs are dying (here is STL, we typically lag on trends like this). The second the city of STL get’s it’s crime under control, the counties will feel threatened as millennials refuse to move 45 minutes away from urban amenities and actually raise children in the inner ring suburbs and nice established city neighborhoods. This can already be seen in Maplewood, Richmond Heights, South City, Mid-County, etc. The days of Oakville, Ballwin, and the like being the epitome of upper-middle class are numbered.

    • Adam

      Well, that’s provided the city CAN get crime under control without help from county revenue given a shrinking tax base and aging infrastructure. All things being equal, unless Lyda and her new police-chief-to-be can come up with some new ideas for getting crime under control, or unless we get lucky and the crime subsides on its own (unlikely over long term unless poverty levels are reduced) I fear the city will continue to bleed out slowly.

      • rgbose

        I don’t think the city has the capacity to solve the region’s crime problem.

        • Adam

          Agreed. I’m not sure it even has the capacity to address the magnitude of the problem within its own limits.

          • Matthew W. Hall

            No, pushing crime into north county by the city may be the best st. louis city can do.

          • Adam

            Well, I don’t see how that’s going to happen either (not that I think it’s a good idea) given the city’s ~30% poverty rate.

          • STLrainbow

            Crime is growing in NoCo but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will drop in North City; and really there is not much of a border to speak of between the two… e.g. 3 of the 5 homicide victims in the City from this weekend that already have been identified are from NoCo; 2 are from the City. And city residents commonly are victims or perpetrators of gun violence in the County.

          • Adam

            Sure. I didn’t say crime isn’t getting worse in North County, or that it doesn’t straddle boundaries. I’m just saying the city isn’t going to get rid of its crime by pushing it into North County as Matthew suggested.

          • Matthew W. Hall

            Why not?

          • Adam

            Because ~30% of the city’s residents live at or below the poverty threshold. That will continue to generate crime within the city until it’s reduced.

          • Matthew W. Hall

            Nothing ever stays the same, not even St. Louis. Change is happening every day in all sorts of ways. The distribution of people in St. Louis is changing as we speak. It’s far more complicated than you suggest.

          • Adam

            well, pushing poverty out didn’t work last century and i don’t think it’ll work this century either.

          • Nick

            As Richard says above, the city doesn’t have the resources to effectively combat the crime problem. It’s in even less of a position to combat the poverty problem.

          • Adam

            i mean, there certainly isn’t an overnight solution to the poverty. realistically it would take two or three generations to even reduce it substantially. but i think the city can make smaller investments in job programs, after school programs, education, etc. along the way that will lead to a reduction in poverty–and thereby crime–over time. the region overall needs to work to bring more jobs to the city so that they are accessible to the transportation-challenged poor. (i know, i know… regionalism is a fantasy.) i’m just saying, moving the poverty around without working to reduce it is not only morally reprehensible, it’s not going to eliminate crime.

          • Nick

            I think your ideas sound great and all, but I don’t know where the city would ever come up with the money to give to programs like you mention such that they would have any meaningful impact…much less funding for generations to come. The budget can barely sustain itself as it is. I also wouldn’t count on other parts of the region giving the city much of a helping hand outside of private donations to various charities.

            I don’t think the poor in the region will ever find much respite from local resources. They’ll need to come from either the state or federal sources.

          • Adam

            I don’t disagree. But with the average income increasing in many neighborhoods and the potential for increased revenue from right-sized property valuations, we could try to divert at least some additional revenue toward alleviating poverty (maybe we need some new ideas for how to do that). I don’t think it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. Help from the state/feds would be ideal, but I don’t think we can just sit around and do nothing while we wait for them to do something.

          • Matthew W. Hall

            Are you suggesting that there was a concerted effort to push poverty out of St. Louis city in the 20th century? If you have any evidence of this, I’d be shocked, but I’d also be fascinated. What on earth are you referring to? In reality, there WAS a concerted effort to concentrate poverty IN St. Louis city.

          • Adam

            “In reality, there WAS a concerted effort to concentrate poverty IN St. Louis city.”

            Yeah, poor black folks were pushed out of affluent white neighborhoods and concentrated into ghettos. Later last century, white folks fled west, took the wealth with them, and left those without the means to follow to fester in the city. It’s the same dance.

          • Matthew W. Hall

            Poor black folks NEVER lived in affluent white neighborhoods in St. Louis, therefore, they couldn’t be “pushed out” of those places. That’s my point. Poor blacks were systematically contained INSIDE St. Louis city to isolate them. You’re understandings of the past are not based in reality.

          • Adam

            For fuck’s sake. I was just continuing with the phrase we had been using. Fine: “kept out”. Stop nitpicking just to argue. The concept is the same: exclusion. I’m not getting into another shape-shifting Matthew Hall argument.

          • Matthew W. Hall

            I don’t really understand your point. My point is that poor blacks are concentrated in north st. Louis because there was a social and political agenda to put them there over decades. That is the most important thing I can think of in explaining why St. Louis is the way it is today. You described a past that never existed. That’s not nitpicking. Racial segregation has been part of St. Louis since it’s creation.

          • Adam

            “No, pushing crime into north county by the city may be the best st. louis city can do.”

            “My point is that poor blacks are concentrated in north st. Louis because there was a social and political agenda to put them there over decades. That is the most important thing I can think of in explaining why St. Louis is the way it is today.”

            If you can’t put it together I can’t help you.

          • Matthew W. Hall

            Yes, I can see that you aren’t much help at all on these issues. Best of luck.

          • Adam

            Yes, unfortunately I’m not a special-ed teacher. Take care.

          • Matthew W. Hall

            Maybe you need a special-ed teacher to help you with your issues. God Bless.

          • Adam

            How original! Best wishes.

          • Matthew W. Hall

            Yes, the originality of insults IS what really matters on this forum. With Deepest Sympathy…..

          • Adam

            “You’re understandings of the past are not based in reality.”

            If you’re going to start hurling insults then, yes, it matters. Otherwise don’t be such a f*cking dick all the time with your responses, particularly when you’re not as sharp as you think you are.

          • Matthew W. Hall

            It’s not an insult if it’s true. What I wrote is true and what you wrote is not.

          • Adam

            I’m more than happy to let the conversation speak for itself.

            Later.

          • Matthew W. Hall

            My thoughts exactly. It just goes to show that you can always find some point of agreement if you just keep trying.
            So Long.

          • Adam

            How original! Best wishes.

          • STLrainbow

            right; pretty much agreeing with you. Crime in the “poverty belt” if you will won’t decrease much until more investments are made there.

      • STLrainbow

        I don’t think so… as WikiWild mentioned there are very attractive neighborhoods in the City and close-in suburbs; these places will continue to strengthen while other parts will continue to struggle w/o greater intervention.

        • Adam

          I guess the big question is: will the growth in those attractive neighborhoods spread to and “gentrify” (whatever that means) the surrounding troubled neighborhoods before the crime and poverty on the periphery erode the progress in those attractive neighborhoods? The city has been playing neighborhood musical chairs for a few decades. It’s going to take sustained population growth to spread the success we’re seeing in Shaw, Forest Park Southeast, Benton Park, etc. to places like Dutchtown, Gravois Park, Bevo, etc. (i.e. neighborhoods that still have residential density to salvage–the north side is a whole ‘nother story).

          • Adam

            … and crime deters population growth.

          • Matthew W. Hall

            …and population growth deters crime.

          • WikiWild

            I think substantial amounts of “gentrification” has already occurred in several city neighborhoods over the last 5 years. It’s very difficult to find a home for less than $200k in neighborhoods that were once considered dilapidated like Fox Park, Gravois Park, and Tower Grove East. I think people are starting to be priced out of the “prime” areas like Shaw and Benton Park which is why we are seeing redevelopment in surrounding neighborhoods. The Gate, McRee, The Tiffany, and South of Manchester in Forest Park Southeast are beginning to look pretty attractive. All the while, prices in Shaw, Benton Park, Compton Heights, etc. continue to increase.

          • Adam

            If this is the case–and I hope it is–I don’t see how the census can continue to show population loss. I guess the north side must still be losing people faster than these central and south side neighborhoods are gaining them.

          • WikiWild

            That about sums it up. At one point there was a good article on here with graphics that showed exactly that trend. Populations increasing or staying steady south of downtown and north of downtown continues to decline.

          • studs

            When looking at the city’s demographic changes and population loss, in the true spirit of “fragmentation”, it is important to remember that the losses mean different things in different areas. Shaw, as one example, showed an overall population loss between 2000 and 2010, despite the fact that dozens and dozens of buildings were completely renovated during that period. Entire blocks changed hands and were transformed. So, despite the enormous investment, improved appearance, new businesses, and overall progress, there are fewer people. This is because a four-family rental building (for example) that was home to 15 – 20 people at the time of the 2000 census has since been renovated as two large $300K townhomes housing 2 – 4 people each in 2010. So, the notion of “loss” population-wise is a relative concept in many neighborhoods. Some people may decry a loss of density or affordable housing, but in any case this kind of population loss in no way signifies abandonment or decay. It actually signifies the opposite. In other neighborhoods, such as many on the north side, the population loss is simply population loss. Abandonment.

      • WikiWild

        As many city residents are noticing, tax assessments are way up. The fact that the city assessor has historically undervalued it’s real property may be a contributing factor to budget shortfalls. With this additional revenue in the coming years, I’d imagine that city schools and services be better.

        https://www.riverfronttimes.com/newsblog/2017/05/18/st-louis-property-assessments-are-way-up-heres-what-you-can-do-about-it

        • Adam

          My understanding though (very possibly wrong) was that the city can only collect so much in property taxes by state law, so while some assessments increase others decrease. If that’s the case then the overall pot doesn’t grow by much.

          • WikiWild

            I’ve never heard that before. Perhaps @@rgbose:disqus can offer some insight?

          • rgbose

            My understanding is that the limit is $1 per $100 assessed for general revenue. A mnui’s residents can vote for bonds that are paid by property taxes on top of that.

          • Adam

            But is there a cap on total assessed value across the city? If not then I guess higher assessments can lead to overall increased revenue.

          • rgbose

            Assessments can rise as many saw this year. But the Hancock Amendment comes into play and reduces the rates if assessments rise to fast. That happened this year in the city.

          • Adam

            So then it sounds like the amendment does, indeed, limit total revenue from property taxes, in which case higher assessments won’t necessarily translate into more revenue for schools and services.

          • rgbose

            It limits the growth in revenue. Donno how that’s calculated. And we can vote to raise the rate if it drops a lot due to the Hancock limits.

          • WikiWild

            Only the revenue growth is limited. The amount of revenue is not limited. Revenue can only grow x amount from cycle to cycle. Higher assessments will translate into additional revenue (that is capped).

            “In general, a taxing jurisdiction’s revenue can’t grow faster than inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index. If increased property values (not counting new construction) would boost revenues more than that, jurisdictions have to reduce their tax levies to compensate.”

            So theoretically if you had a ton of new construction, revenues can increase significantly but with no new construction, revenues can only increase by CPI.

            Not sure if redevelopments would fall under new construction. That likely wouldn’t matter much as most new construction/redevelopment has some sort of tax break. I’d imagine many of the McGowan developments on Wash Ave would begin to have their tax abatement expiring soon.

  • Nick

    I think the issue is the city has much more to gain than the county from a merger, hence why you see so much pushback particularly from the wealthier suburbs. This is unfortunate as a merger would probably help support a stronger city core, which will help lift the region in general IMO. I find it hopeful, and surprising, that Stenger seems to be in favor of a merger. Maybe we’ll get lucky and it will happen one day.

    • tpekren

      Stenger I think is in the unique position of seeing how consolidating typical county services between county & city is a plus for his political strength/county services overall as well as on State & Federal level while at the same time, he is not beholden to the multiple small county muni’s politically. At the same time a city leadership willing for those county services to be taken over as a whole and concedes the fact that is probably the best overall outcome or at least doable.
      ..
      I also think Stenger will have some political strength in convincing voters that having county services consolidated/controlled from Clayton over the city is good thing while at the same time he is above the fray of Bel Ridge, Overland and the countless small muni’s having to nickel and dime their way too a budget.