Analyst: Tax promise is binding

Thursday, July 27, 2006

As Cape Girardeau County commissioners visit town meetings and service clubs promoting Proposition 1, they have run into some residents expressing a lack of trust in their promises.

One promise they have made -- that if Proposition 1 passes the county road and bridge property tax would disappear and could not return without a vote -- is backed up by state law, the chief property tax analyst in the state auditor's office said Wednesday.

Proposition 1 would, if approved by voters Aug. 8, impose a half-cent sales tax with proceeds dedicated to county roads and law enforcement. In exchange for passage, the county would eliminate the property tax for roads and the Cape Special Road District would also drop its property tax.

The issues involved cover some arcane aspects of state tax law. Every taxing district has a maximum allowable levy, but not every taxing district takes the maximum from taxpayers.

Both Cape Girardeau County and the Cape Special Road District do charge the maximum. Putting the promise that the county tax would be eliminated in the 71-word ballot question requires that the maximum allowable levy be set at zero, said Becky Webb, tax rate supervisor for the state auditor's office.

Webb's job is to compile data on property values in a taxing district, such as school districts, cities and counties. She then applies the rules established in the state constitution's tax limitation provisions, commonly known as the Hancock Amendment, to determine the district's allowable tax rate.

As part of her job, Webb keeps track of tax elections across the state in the hundreds of taxing entities allowed under law to impose property taxes and adjusts the maximum tax rate accordingly.

Cape Girardeau County charges property owners 23.69 cents per $100 of assessed valuation for roads and bridges. The special road district, which includes the city of Cape Girardeau and surrounding areas east of Highway 25 and south of Egypt Mills, charges 26.81 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.

"If they said eliminate, basically the county would have zero levy until voters reauthorize it," Webb said.

The Cape Special Road District is a different matter, Webb said. Because the promise to eliminate the property taxes in that district appears in a 191-word explanation that voters will see on the ballot and not in the ballot question itself, the district is not part of the legally binding ballot issue, she said.

Webb said she doubted she would automatically reduce the district's maximum tax levy to zero if Proposition 1 passes, but she would expect to see the actual levy that's imposed reduced to zero.

In response to cynical questions about their intentions, commissioners have assured residents that state law bars future commissioners from reimposing the tax without a vote. Presiding Commissioner Gerald Jones and Commissioner Jay Purcell said Wednesday it helps their cause that Webb backs up that claim.

"Very much so," Jones said. "It says in the ballot language and the way I read the statutes that we can't do both."

"It sure can't hurt," Purcell added. "We can't address all the issues of the past, but all three commissioners have said what we are going to do, and we are going to hold to our word."

The Cape Special Road District board has already voted to eliminate its property tax if the sales-tax measure wins voter approval. The intergovernmental agreement stipulating that action, however, has not been written.

The Cape Special Road District property tax raised $1.44 million in 2005. Cape Girardeau County, under state law, keeps 20 percent of that amount, leaving the district with about $1.16 million a year to maintain its 100 miles of road.

If the tax passes, the district will get the full amount equal to what its current property tax would raise and a funding boost of about 25 percent. The extra funding is an incentive for the district to go along with Proposition 1.

Jones said the agreement, when written, "will protect the taxpayers of Cape Girardeau County, but this still has to be worked out."

Like the county commissioners, the three road district commissioners are elected, not appointed. The agreement to keep the property tax at zero will be worked out in an open session of the two bodies, Jones said.

"Those guys have no intention of imposing a property tax, not when they said they would roll it back," he said.

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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