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Joplin seeks approval for tax-funded redevelopment

Tuesday, September 13, 2011 | 2:23 p.m. CDT; updated 5:21 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, September 13, 2011

JEFFERSON CITY — Joplin officials are seeking state permission to use a portion of the Missouri taxes paid by local businesses to finance redevelopment in areas that were wiped out by a deadly tornado.

The proposal has passed the Missouri House and appears likely to win the endorsement Wednesday of a state Senate committee as part of a bill that also would authorize a property tax break for businesses destroyed by tornadoes, flooding or other natural disasters.

The ability of Joplin to redirect tax revenues to development efforts is an important part of "a comprehensive planning approach" by the city, James Mello, a St. Louis attorney with Armstrong Teasdale LLP, told senators Tuesday. The law firm has been hired by Joplin to promote the legislation at the Missouri Capitol.

But the plan to divert state tax revenues to local disaster redevelopment efforts is not included on Gov. Jay Nixon's agenda for the special session. Nixon has not publicly taken a position on the measure, despite a written request from Joplin's mayor and City Council that he add it to the official agenda for the special session.

Under the Missouri Constitution, lawmakers meeting in special session are supposed to take action only on subjects listed by the governor. Anything outside the scope of the governor's agenda could be susceptible to a court challenge. But lawmakers this month have advanced a variety of bills that stretch the narrowly tailored agenda set by Nixon on disaster relief, the 2012 presidential elections and Internet communications between teachers and students.

Nixon's agenda does include legislation allowing counties to prorate the property taxes due from businesses destroyed by natural disasters, similar to what already can be done for homeowners. But the House expanded that legislation last week to include authority for special tax increment financing districts in natural disaster areas.

Under the plan, 2011 would be set as a base year for tax levels. Then half of the growth in state sales taxes and employee withholding taxes from the general area affected by the tornado would be placed into a special fund that could be used for redevelopment efforts. Joplin also could use the growth in local sales and property taxes in the special district for redevelopment efforts. Although the idea is backed by Joplin officials, the legislation is written broadly enough that it could apply to any disaster area.

The legislation would make the local disaster redevelopment plan subject to approval by the state Department of Economic Development, and no money would flow to the special redevelopment fund unless included in the budget by state lawmakers.

Mello said Joplin could use the fund for a variety of things, including infrastructure improvements, incentives for developers to rebuild certain types of housing or businesses or to help pay for capital improvements at tornado-damaged schools.

Senators generally seemed supportive of the proposal.

"It sounds good," said Sen. Chuck Purgason, R-Caulfield, who is chairman of the Senate Ways and Means and Fiscal Oversight Committee. "We're just looking at making sure we don't have any unintended consequences."

In a letter sent to Nixon last week, Joplin Mayor Michael Woolston said it was "critical to the recovery efforts of Joplin" to pursue the tax-district legislation during the special session.

Joplin officials have been gathering public comment about redevelopment plans for the area damaged by the tornado and hope to present a long-term recovery plan to the City Council in about a month, said Troy Bolander, the city's planning manager. He said the potential tax-redevelopment district is not part of that general process but could be incorporated later.

"You definitely don't want to have a knee-jerk reaction from this event and end up doing something wrong" in the rebuilding process, Bolander said. "Also, you don't want to wait so long that people get frustrated and may exit your community."


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