JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri businesses destroyed in natural disasters could get a property tax break while they rebuild under a measure that moved forward in the legislature on Thursday.
Under the legislation endorsed by a House committee, disaster-damaged buildings, structures and fixtures on commercial property could be removed from property tax rolls until they can be used once again. Local officials would need to choose to offer the property tax break, and businesses would apply for the tax relief after a natural disaster.
Missouri has faced a spate of natural disasters this year, including flooding along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and tornadoes in Joplin, St. Louis and Sedalia. Supporters said the property tax assistance could help businesses and be an economic boost for communities that have faced natural disasters.
Rep. Bill White, R-Joplin, who sponsored the bill, said many storm-damaged businesses cannot immediately continue to make sales and keep their cash registers ringing, yet face tax bills.
"Several thousand dollars of property tax can be the difference between a small business — a one-man auto repair shop — staying in business, rebuilding or going somewhere else or just dropping out of business," White said. "This is very important. It's a true economic recovery and economic stimulus."
Missouri counties already can adopt ordinances that allow residential structures to be removed from tax rolls when made uninhabitable by natural disasters and new homes to be added when they are occupied in the middle of the year. State tax records show several dozen counties have adopted the policies for residential property.
A tornado on May 22 killed 160 people and damaged or destroyed about 8,000 homes and businesses in the Joplin area. It cut a path several miles long and struck residential neighborhoods and many businesses in the southwestern Missouri city.
Another area hit by natural disasters this year was St. Louis County. A tornado in April damaged homes, businesses and Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.
St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman said Thursday that 2,692 residents received lower property tax assessments after that tornado but nothing could be done for the businesses that were damaged. He urged lawmakers to approve the legislation.
"It was so frustrating to be unable to provide that same kind of help to businesses, especially in an economy when so many are struggling to stay afloat," Zimmerman said.
Gov. Jay Nixon added the property tax measure to the agenda for a special legislative session that started this week.
Besides disaster recovery, House committees on Thursday also endorsed legislation that deals with the St. Louis Police Department, a tax amnesty period and next year's presidential primary.
The police legislation would replace a state commission that has overseen the St. Louis Police Department since the Civil War era. Testifying before a House committee, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said ending the state oversight would help to bring the department closer to the city's residents. The St. Louis Police Officers Association supported the legislation and said it was concerned about a proposed ballot measure that also called for handing over the reins of the department.
The tax amnesty measure would allow those who owe taxes to pay up without fear of penalties or interest. The presidential primary measure would push back Missouri's election from February to March to comply with rules set by the Republican and Democratic national parties.