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St. Louis County Council rejects property tax freeze for seniors

The Lawrence K Roos St. Louis County Government Building on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, before a press conference on the recent uptick in car break-ins in Clayton.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
By a 4-3 vote, St. Louis County Council members Tuesday rejected a bill that would have allowed eligible seniors to have their property taxes frozen.

The St. Louis County Council rejected taking advantage of a new state law that would effectively freeze property taxes for seniors.

But backers of the idea aren’t giving up, noting that the proposal could eventually come before the county’s voters.

Earlier this year, the Missouri General Assembly approved a measure allowing counties to freeze certain senior property taxes. In order to qualify, a property owner would have to be eligible for Social Security.

Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, proposed the county opt into the program. But his colleagues rejected his legislation by a 4-3 vote Tuesday. All four Democrats on the council — Chairwoman Shalonda Webb, Kelli Dunaway, Lisa Clancy and Rita Days — voted no. Republicans Ernie Trakas and Dennis Hancock joined Harder in voting yes.

Detractors contended that while freezing property tax increases for seniors was a worthy goal, it could have a negative impact on schools, fire protection districts and municipalities.

“And I don't want to be in this mess,” said Webb of St. Louis County. “I don't want our seniors to get some undue consequences because due diligence wasn't served.”

Some council members said they didn’t like how anyone could qualify for the property tax freeze — even people who are considered wealthy. They noted that the council couldn’t implement a means test, because the state legislature didn’t provide that option in the new law.

“I do know what it's like to look at someone who is in dire straits that is at risk of losing their home, and that's why I continue to advocate so much for affordable housing in our region,” said Clancy of Maplewood. “However, I cannot support this kind of one-size-fits-all policy. We need a means test. We need to make sure that it is our most vulnerable that are being helped, and not at the expense of our children.”

Days, a former member of the Missouri House and Senate, said it was highly unlikely that the legislature would make changes to the bill in 2024 to make the program more palatable to counties.

“And I know that when they get there in January, their concern is not going to be any more on senior citizens,” said Days of Bel Nor. “Because as far as they're concerned, they've done everything that they need to do. And they have put the responsibility on counties.”

Proponents aren’t giving up

Harder said he was disappointed by the council’s decision, adding that the property tax freeze could have helped seniors who are struggling to stay in their homes because of inflation or high taxes.

He noted that backers of the idea could still gather roughly 27,000 signatures to put the tax freeze up for a public vote, but he added that likely wouldn’t happen until sometime next year.

“Yes, the bill has some flaws in it,” said Harder, referring to the state legislation. “But right now the seniors will not have any help and probably won't have any help in the near future.”

Marsha Schuman, a real estate agent, said she’s witnessed seniors distraught about not being able to stay in their homes because of the property tax burden. She added that it made more sense for people to stay in their homes rather than go to federally subsidized nursing homes.

“We are supposed to have some peace now. We have earned these golden years,” Schuman said. “They’re not so golden. It’s like having lead dropped on your head and living in fear.”

While noting that he didn’t like how the state legislation was constructed, Trakas, of St. Louis County, said he still ended up supporting Harder’s bill.

“There are two horns to this dilemma,” Trakas said. “One, helping seniors who desperately need it in many, many situations. The other concerns for lost revenue and the impact that will have. The thing about being impaled on the horns of a dilemma: You don't get to pass. You have to choose.”

Hancock, of Fenton, said that he thought it was telling that representatives of school and fire protection districts spoke against the bill during a hearing before the council voted.

“When I was sitting here listening to that, all I could think about is this really comes down to two groups: There are the people who pay the taxes. And there are the people who spend the taxes,” Hancock said. “The people who were fighting hard against this bill are the people who spend the taxes. The people who are fighting for this bill are the people who pay the taxes.”

Scott Lakin, head of the county revenue department, said that if the program were implemented, it would likely cost the county money — primarily to hire more staff or to conduct a public information campaign about how to qualify for the tax freeze.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.