Farming the system, not the land
COLUMBIA, Mo 3/24/16 (Beat Byte) -- An Associated Press (AP) investigation from a decade ago confirms what this publication has followed since 2008: a massive property tax discount called the "Fake Farmland Scam" that has cost area schools, libraries, road construction, and other public services over $170 million since 2004.
Developers and prominent landowners in Columbia and Boone County pay just a few hundred dollars in property taxes on land worth millions.
The Boone County Assessor calls the property "farmland" even if it hasn't been farmed for decades. The land -- most of it primed for development -- is then taxed at the ultra-low farmland rate.
Meanwhile, homeowners pay an ever-rising share of government expenses. Voters this April go to the polls for the 8th Columbia Public Schools property tax increase in eight years, most of the hikes passed by the School Board without voter approval.
The Fake Farmland Scam is so notorious that St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman ran campaign ads condemning it.
Lawmakers nationwide intended to preserve vanishing farmlands with the big tax breaks, wrote AP writers Allen Breed and Martha Mendoza.
But instead, they handed millions of unintended dollars "to companies that bulldoze farms to build housing subdivisions, malls, and industrial parks."
"We have a lot of wannabe farmers who are out there trying to farm the system rather than the property," said Assessor Steve van Sant, about fake farmland in his state, Alaska.
"The breaks can be enormous," the two reporters discovered. Without them, developers would "typically pay two to 400 times more in property taxes."In Columbia, Wal-Mart billionaires Stan and Ann Kroenke paid just $347 in 2015 property taxes on 133 acres across from Mill Creek Elementary School and their estate on Nifong Blvd.
The Kroenkes bought the land for $1,915,200 in 1998 -- nearly two decades ago. But today, County Assessor Tom Schauwecker (D) says it's worth $44,470.
That's not the only property tax break the Kroenkes receive.
For 3 acres of residentially-classified land on Sinclair Rd., they paid just $24.70 in 2015 property taxes. For another 8 acre residential parcel, their 2015 property tax bill was $296.
Thousands of acres of prime development land -- much of it owned by Boone County's richest families -- get the same property tax breaks year in and year out.
In a 2011 survey of 10 such parcels totalling nearly 400 acres, the Heart Beat found just $2,363.26 in Boone County property taxes.
Between 2007-2011, the landowners paid only $59.01 more -- on the entire 400 acres!
The AP investigation unearthed legislation in many states, including Missouri, that grants the big breaks to working farmland, i.e. land that is actively farmed.
Simply zoning the land "agricultural" doesn't merit the break, a critical point upheld in a precedent-setting Missouri Tax Commission case, Northtown Village vs. Jasper County Assessor Tom Davis.
But that doesn't stop developers from exploiting the loophole, which opens wide when County Assessors ignore the active farming requirement and literally look the other way.
Farming is obvious, even to lay people.
"I see no evidence of farming," Columbia school board member Jan Mees told the Heart Beat about the 133-acre Kroenke parcel, when she was running for re-election in 2010.
Columbia Public Schools, and other school districts, cities, and libraries in Boone County should have a vested interest in squelching the Fake Farmland scam.
"Every tax dollar lost through loopholes must be made up somehow, either in reduced services or in higher taxes for other property owners," the AP reported.
Boone County property taxes have risen dramatically -- and disproportionately -- on other property owners, leaving developers to profit from legislation originally designed to keep them at bay.
AP Investigation: Loopholes let land preservation tax breaks go to developers
A short of list undertaxed land in Columbia and Boone County
-- This story updates a 2013 article.