Ferguson doesn’t get much revenue from the Fortune 500 companies in town

Many suburban communities give tax breaks to corporations so that they locate in their community. Ferguson, Missouri is one such case where Emerson Electronics and other businesses don’t pay as much as they might in local taxes:

In 2014, the assessed valuation of real and personal property on Emerson’s entire 152-acre, seven-building campus was roughly $15 million. That value has gone up and down over the last five years as Emerson has sold off some buildings and built others, but it has not exceeded $15 million in the period since the data center was completed. So what happened to that brand-new $50 million dollar building?…

For tax purposes, Emerson’s Ferguson campus is appraised according to its “fair market value.” That means a $50 million dollar solar-powered data center is only worth what another firm would be willing to pay for it. “Our location in Ferguson affects the fair market value of the entire campus,” Polzin explained. By this reasoning, the condition of West Florissant Avenue explains the low valuation of the company’s headquarters.In fact, the opposite is true: The rock-bottom assessment value of the Ferguson campus helps ensure that West Florissant Avenue remains in its current condition, year after year. It severely limits the tax money Emerson contributes to the Ferguson-Florissant district’s struggling schools (Michael Brown graduated from nearby Normandy High School, a nearly 100 percent African American school that has been operating without state accreditation for the last two years), and to the government of St. Louis County more generally. On the 25 parcels Emerson owns all around St. Louis County, it pays the county $1.3m in property taxes. Ferguson itself receives far less. Even after a 2013 property tax increase (from $0.65 to the state-maximum $1 per $100 of assessed value), Ferguson received an estimated $68,000 in property taxes from the corporate headquarters that occupies 152 acres of its tax base—not even enough to pay the municipal judge and his clerk to hand out the fines and sign the arrest warrants.

St. Louis County doesn’t just assess Emerson a low market value. It then divides that number in three—so its final property value, for tax purposes, ends up being one third of its already low appraised value. In some states, Ferguson would be able to offset this write-down by raising its own percentage tax rate. Voters would even be able to decide which services needed the most help and raise property taxes for specific reasons. But Missouri sets a limit for such levies: $1 per $100 of property. As Joseph Pulitzer wrote of St. Louis during the first Gilded Age, “millions and millions of property in this city escape all taxation.”…

Emerson Electric isn’t the only business on Ferguson’s West Florissant Avenue. The street is also home to a number of big box stores including a Home Depot, a Walmart, and a Sam’s Club, located at the city’s northern limit. These companies all came to town in 1997 through something called tax increment financing—known (to the extent it’s known at all) by the acronym TIF. Along with low appraisals and tax abatements, TIF districts are one of Missouri’s principal tools for encouraging new development.

The conclusion here is that these tax policies reproduce the economic inequalities in Ferguson. Hence, the community has to find alternative sources of revenue, such as targeting motorists.

Here is where this gets trickier: if Ferguson didn’t offer these deals, could it have attracted these businesses? If many suburbs participate in the game of tax breaks, wouldn’t someone else offer good tax breaks? Where race matters here is that communities like Ferguson – lower income, transitioning from white to black over recent decades – have to offer even better tax breaks to compete. But, for all of these communities, it is a race to the bottom as a better deal to attract a corporation means less revenue for the city. Still, local politicians can sell the jobs created or the prestige generated. But, as this article points out, the jobs and prestige may not help much in the long run.

What you might need here is a metropolitan wide policy against such tax breaks or TIF districts to reduce the competition. Or, perhaps some tax revenue sharing program where sales tax and property tax dollars are partly redistributed to reflect who shops at or works at these facilities (they all don’t come from the community in which the firm is located). Yet, such policies require a lot of political will and again encounter the problem of race as communities, especially wealthier ones, will not want to share their revenues with others.

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