Warren County commissioners approved a resolution stating they would implement Missouri Senate Bill 190 and freeze property taxes for seniors despite remaining questions.
The Warren County Commission took a step toward implementing Missouri SB190 and freezing property taxes for seniors during its Oct. 19 meeting.
While the commission has not yet passed an ordinance freezing property taxes, the three commissioners did approve a resolution that states they will in the near future.
The resolution passed the commission by a vote of 3-0.
Commissioners also said the tax rates that will be frozen are the 2024 rates.
“That’s the way most other counties so far have signed off on it,” Presiding Commissioner Joe Gildehaus said after the meeting.”
It followed an hour-plus long meeting that involved a conversation between the commission, senior citizens, and representatives of the taxing bodies that serve Warren County.
It followed a meeting in September where senior citizens first addressed the issue with the commission.
More than 30 people attended the meeting, including Wright City Mayor Michelle Heiliger, Warrenton Alderman Larry Corder, representatives from the Wright City and Warrenton fire protection districts, Warren County and Marthasville MES, the library district, the Warren County Developmental Disabilities Board, and the Warren County R-III school district.
In the most recent legislative session, Missouri lawmakers passed SB190, which does two important things.
The first allows residents to deduct 100 percent of certain retirement and Social Security benefits from their adjusted gross income when filing income taxes.
The second allows counties to grant property tax credits to those who are eligible for Social Security retirement benefits.
That means Warren County can freeze property taxes at 2024 rates for anyone receiving Social Security benefits. But it also leaves a lot open to interpretation.
Six counties, including St. Louis, St. Charles, and Jackson, and St. Louis city have already implemented the bill. None of their ordinances are the same.
For instance, in St. Louis County, seniors must be at least 67 years old to receive the tax credit, and the bill includes a cap for anyone in a house worth more than $550,000. That bill is waiting to be signed by the county executive.
But in St. Charles County, seniors need only be 62 to receive the credit, and there is no cap on who can apply for the credit and the freeze applies to all taxing bodies.
That’s different from what St. Louis city passed. Its ordinance states that the freeze is just on the city’s portion of property taxes and does not affect other taxing bodies within the city.
Warren County officials, and others across Missouri, have asked state legislators to clarify the bill.
Gildehaus said during the meeting that state Sen. Ben Brown had told him that clarification could come during the next session, which begins in January.
“Ben gave us some really good knowledge as far as some of the things that he feels that they will go back to the table and adjust some things in session,” he said. “I mean, I have that from Ben several times, which is good.”
Brown and state Rep. Jeff Myers were invited to the Oct. 19 meeting but were unable to attend.
When Warren County officials implement SB190, those eligible for the freeze would pay the same rates in 2024 until they leave their current home.
But countywide assessments would continue, meaning the value of the home itself would not be frozen.
It would be up to the county collector’s office to ensure seniors living in those homes do not pay the new rates.
But, when ownership of the house is transferred to an individual not eligible for the tax freeze, they will be required to pay whatever the current rate is at the home’s most recently assessed value.
That had several senior citizens in the crowd arguing that, with the expected population growth in the county, no taxing body would be negatively affected as new residents would pay much higher assessed values.
“All this new housing being built, I’m more than sure that there’s more new housing coming in than there are retired people here,” resident Carole Myers said. “And the money will be far, far greater because the housing is more expensive than what it is, so the taxes would be more.”
Some of the taxing district representatives did remind the crowd that people do get older, which will make more people eligible for the freeze each year.
All the representatives for the taxing bodies said they support freezing property taxes for seniors, but wanted both county officials and taxpayers to know that the decision would mean less money for vital services.
“We would have to find ways to find the revenue to replace that,” R-III Superintendent Gregg Klinginsmith said. “So just so you’re aware, that tax burden doesn’t go away.”
That was a statement that Warren County Republican Committee Chairwoman Bev Ehlen had to respond to.
“You said tax burden, this is in the future,” Ehlen said. “So you’ll be able to see how much less of an increase you’ll be getting. So I don’t know that that would really be a burden. You’ll just have to maybe not increase your expenditures or you’ll have to find ways like we all have to in our home budget when we have less money.”
The problem with that sentiment, though, is that many taxing bodies have services they are obligated to provide.
For instance, in the R-III budget for the 2023-2024 year, the district budgeted more than $2 million in food service. The United States Department of Agriculture says food prices are expected to increase 5.8 percent in 2023 and an additional 2.2 percent in 2024.
As those costs increase, the implementation of SB190 would limit how much money the school district would receive.
One senior citizen present at the meeting claimed taxing bodies would only lose about 1 percent of its current income.
“If our budget is reduced 1 percent, I would hug you,” said Anita Contreras, the executive director for the Warren County Developmental Disabilities Board.
That agency provides money to organizations that provide essential services to people with developmental disabilities within the county.
“If our budget was cut, that would have devastating effects on those agencies,” she said. “They rely on our funding in order to provide services. We work very hard with the agencies to expand services so that residents of Warren County have the same level of services that they do in other counties.”
It was caution that the taxing body representatives urged, though all said they did support tax relief for seniors.
“I think this is a very emotional issue for everyone,” Wright City Mayor Heiliger said during the meeting. “We have way too many unanswered questions. I don’t think that there’s anybody in this room that doesn’t support this idea. … But we are financially responsible to provide services to every member of the community. And so that’s where the discomfort is coming from. At the end of the day, you’re going to hold these folks responsible for showing up in a fire truck, showing up in an ambulance. So we have to be sure we can still provide those services to everyone.”
Many of the taxing bodies cited Missouri’s Hancock Amendment as a significant obstacle to their budgets as they prepare to deal with a loss in revenue from the property tax freeze.
The Hancock Amendment limits how much a taxing body can increase its tax rate without placing it on a ballot.
That limit is 5 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is less.
This year, taxing bodies suffered through a year in which inflation was 6.5 percent, meaning they could only increase their rates by 5 percent.
“I think one of the issues is going to be that the Hancock amendment still applies as if those seniors were paying the normal rate,” said Dan Casey, chief of the New Melle Fire Protection District, which serves about 25 square miles of Warren County. “So we’re going to have to roll back our taxes on income that’s not going to be there.”
“Has your budget been decreased?” Ehlen asked. “No. You can’t use the same tax rate … so you have to adjust the tax rate. So your budgets have increased over these years.”
“But Hancock is out there to keep us revenue neutral,” Casey said. “We’re only allowed to go up 5 percent even though our growth was 11 percent, even though inflation was 6.5. So we’re losing a percent and a half.”
He said that affects everyday things, such as the fuel needed for the fire trucks.
“Gas prices go up, fuel taxes, all these things go up. We still have to pay those things,” Casey said.
One thing that could potentially help offset the Hancock Amendment would be an increase to overall property assessments.
In May 2023, the state tax commission required Warren County Assessor Katie Smith to increase land values and residential improvements by 8 percent.
It was the first assessment increase in Warren County in more than a decade after former Assessor Wendy (Nordwald) Kozma “didn’t do her job,” Smith said.
That put assessments well behind where they should be, and Smith said it would take an increase of 30 to 40 percent to get caught up.
But Warren County commissioners balked at the idea of a significant increase in 2025, the next time assessments are scheduled to be re-evaluated.
“We got in this situation because somebody wasn’t doing their job for years and now here we are,” Commissioner Matt Flake said. “If you just give them a jump all at once, it is crazy, too.”
But Klinginsmith, the superintendent of the Warren County R-III district, believes it’s necessary.
“One area that we all know that needs improvement is our local assessed value of real estate,” he said in a statement to The Record. “State statute 137.115 clearly states that all real estate should be assessed at true value. The true value is the fair market value. While the state tax commission forced our county to receive an 8 percent increase in assessed value for real estate this year, this is still well short of the true value for most properties in our county.”
He said there would be a benefit to taxpayers if assessments were increased.
“Due to taxpayer protection laws, if assessed values increase more than inflation, then taxing entities have to lower our tax rates,” he said. “This would mean people would pay less on their personal property tax because personal property is being assessed correctly. This would result in the taxpayer having an increase in real estate taxes and a decrease in personal property taxes. Most likely, this would result in additional revenue for the school district and could be the revenue needed to offset the loss of revenue from the tax freeze for seniors.”
Gildehaus, the presiding commissioner, said he was grateful for the back-and-forth discussion during the meeting.
“It’s good when we work together,” he said. “I mean, this is not easy.”
He also praised Heiliger, the Wright City mayor, for her comments.
“I think Mayor Heiliger did a great job,” he said. “You don’t want to rush into something and you have to change everything. Some of this may have to change after we put it in place. If something’s challenged,we may have to knock it out and change it again.”
Gildehaus and the commissioners said they have a plan moving forward to create an ordinance to implement SB190, but need to address it with the county attorney along with the Missouri Association of Counties.
He also said they hope to have something in place before the end of the year, but would not commit to a date for a future discussion.
“I’m going to tell them we want to rush it, but we want to get it right,” Gildehaus said during the meeting.
“It’s going to be a process,” Flake said after the meeting. “We want all the answers we can get from our convention at MAC and we definitely want the state houses to take this up and give us some answers on how to implement this.”
About the author: Jason Koch is the editor of The Warren County Record, and covers local news and government for the newspaper. He has won multiple awards from both the Indiana and Illinois APME and from the Illinois Press Association. He can be reached at 636-456-6397 or at email@example.com