Death and Taxes: Where Your Money Goes, In One-to-Ten Percent Increments

Apr 27, 2012 at 8:12 am
As Yogi Berra said, "You can observe a lot by watching." Or reading the small print on your bills.
As Yogi Berra said, "You can observe a lot by watching." Or reading the small print on your bills.

As we grudgingly made out our income tax checks to the government last week, we felt relieved that our annual nightmare was over. Then we turned to our gas bill and noticed this printed on the bottom: "University Ci Tax: $4.30." And at the bottom of our receipt from the Brentwood Target: "Incl 1% Hanley Road Corridor TDD."

Does it ever end????

Short answer: No. Especially if you want to eat your food hot instead of cold and eat it sitting down in a restaurant instead of taking to go. Yes -- hot food is actually taxed more than cold food, and they charge you for chowing down in a restaurant instead of at your desk.

But first the mysterious taxes identified by abbreviations.

All across the county, and in individual city neighborhoods, too, local governments and community councils have discovered that a one percent sales tax is the best way to build up a war chest to fund little improvements, like street lights and music festivals. That's what the "CI" in our gas bill stands for: Community Improvements. These taxes can't be imposed without the consent of neighborhood residents, which is only fair since property owners also have to pay a few extra bucks per year to fund community improvements. Democracy in action!

If you live in a municipality other than St. Louis City, though, your CI tax gets folded into your property taxes and utility bills. How lucky.

From now on, we're going to the Target on Hampton and Chippewa.
From now on, we're going to the Target on Hampton and Chippewa.

A TDD is a Transportation Development District. Unlike CI taxes, they're determined by property owners who promise to use the tax income for transportation-related things, such as parking lots or the Loop Trolley. Everybody has to pay taxes until the project is paid off.

The good news is, if you're super-conscientious about being a cheapskate, you can plan your shopping around taxable areas. The department of revenue has thoughtfully provided a list of TDDs and tables of sales tax rates, or you can search by a particular address. It also helps you keep track of the changes in tax rates throughout the county. Unincorporated St. Louis County, which includes South County Center, has the lowest sales tax, 6.925 percent, while the central corridor (e.g. Brentwood), St. Louis Mills and West County Center have the highest, 9.425 percent.

Then there's food. If your food comes to you cold or at room temperature, you'll only have to pay 1.225 percent tax. If the food comes hot, the tax goes up to 4.225 percent. But if you have to heat up the food yourself, you can get away with paying the lower rate. (The Department of Revenue uses the example of a frozen burrito you heat up in a convenience store microwave -- which proves that government wonks are people, too.)

A caveat: If you're sitting in a restaurant and someone brings you your food, you'll have to pay an extra 1.5 percent tax. But only in St. Louis City.

Over in Illinois, the government taxes you 6.25 percent if you buy candy. "Candy," by the way, is anything without flour in it. So stick with cookies and you'll only pay 1 percent. (The Illinois state legislature works in mysterious ways.)

And, finally, if you're sick of trying to make sense of all this and just want to go to a yoga class to calm down, go right ahead. Except that exercise and spiritual enlightenment come with a four percent tax rate.