Arch-parks sales tax plan in trouble in St. Charles County

2013-01-10T00:05:00Z 2014-04-04T16:29:15Z Arch-parks sales tax plan in trouble in St. Charles CountyBy Mark Schlinkmann mschlinkmann@post-dispatch.com 636-255-7233 stltoday.com

 

UPDATED at 10:30 a.m. Thursday

ST. CHARLES COUNTY • A sales tax increase to overhaul the Gateway Arch grounds and fund other parks across the region appears doomed in St. Charles County.

A majority of County Council members said Wednesday it’s unlikely they’ll put the issue on the April 2 ballot, the date also targeted for public votes in St. Louis and St. Louis County. That means St. Charles County retailers will not be charging additional sales taxes and residents will not get increased park improvements.

Four council members said they had been willing to consider the idea but backed off in part because a regional parks agency overseeing the project refused to pay the county’s extra election costs. There are no countywide issues on the ballot, so the sales tax question would require additional polling places.

Two other council members oppose the tax plan altogether. A seventh couldn’t be reached for comment but has previously expressed opposition.

“I guess it’s a dead issue for now” unless somebody steps forward to foot the estimated $150,000 to $175,000 election bill, said Councilman John White, R-St. Charles County.

Regional backers of the plan said they were disappointed at the St. Charles County situation but are prepared to move forward with just St. Louis and St. Louis County taking part.

“Financially, it would mean about 20 percent less” generated for the project, said Susan Trautman, executive director of Great Rivers Greenway, the regional parks agency.

“St. Charles County is part of the region, and we were really hoping they would want to give their residents an opportunity to at least vote.”

White said he has an election ordinance ready to introduce at the council’s meeting Monday night if someone would cover the cost.

But the board of Great Rivers Greenway voted Tuesday to reject the request by county officials.

A Greenway attorney said the agency couldn’t legally use district funds to put on the election, a point disputed by the county.

The agency already collects sales tax money across the two counties and St. Louis for its regional trail system.

Trautman said her agency’s board also believes it’s inappropriate to use public park dollars generated from all three jurisdictions to pay for an election in one.

White suggested that another funding source could be a private foundation working with the Greenway agency and Civic Progress — which represents the area’s leading corporations — on the Arch project.

However, Tom Irwin, a Civic Progress official, said using private funds to pay for putting on an election is “a terrible idea” from a public policy standpoint.

Under the sales tax plan, the two counties and St. Louis would ask voters to increase taxes by three-sixteenths of a cent.

Thirty percent of the increase would help pay for Arch grounds expansion and improvements, 40 percent for parks in the city and the two counties, and 30 percent for the regional Great Rivers Greenway trail system. The increase was expected to generate $38 million annually over 20 years, with about $7.6 million from St. Charles County.

The hike would take effect only if passed by voters in St. Louis County, which has the largest tax base, plus those in either St. Charles County or the city of St. Louis.

The St. Louis County Council on Tuesday night gave tentative approval to setting up the April election vote. In St. Louis, an aldermanic committee has endorsed the idea.

In St. Charles County, County Executive Steve Ehlmann proposed that the greenway agency pay election costs either out of revenue generated by the tax boost in the county or, if the measure was defeated, from revenue from the existing greenway tax in the county.

The district countered by proposing that the county pay for the election from its allotted share of either tax.  White said "it's not something we would really want to do."

Councilman Terry Hollander, R-St. Charles, said council members believe it would be difficult to get St. Charles County voters to approve the tax boost.

“The odds are pretty slim. That’s the vibe,” he said.

There’s also a time crunch involved. State law requires the county to put the issue on the ballot by Jan. 22, and the council’s meeting Monday is the last one before then.

The county charter requires a 10-day interval between introduction and passage of an ordinance. A special meeting would be required by Saturday to meet that in most cases. 

The charter allows exceptions to the 10-day rule for emergency bills "affecting the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, safety and welfare."

White and Councilman Mike Klinghammer, R-St. Charles, said the council could put the issue on the ballot at countywide elections next year when the tax plan wouldn’t trigger substantial extra costs.

White said he realized that St. Charles County municipalities would get extra money for their own parks under the proposition but said most “never came forward” to ask the council to advance the issue.

Councilman Joe Brazil, R-Defiance, opposes the plan even if the county didn’t have to pay for the election.

“It’s a grand plan and it’s nice, but ... people are tired of paying more taxes.”

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