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Mayor pushes tax proposals for MetroLink expansion, neighborhood development and soccer stadium

Mayor pushes tax proposals for MetroLink expansion, neighborhood development and soccer stadium

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Downtown MLS stadium rendering

Hopeful owners of a Major League Soccer team are proposing a $200 million downtown stadium west of Union Station that could hold 20,000 people and open in 2020 or 2021. The renderings for the ownership group, SC STL, were done by HOK. (Image by HOK)

ST. LOUIS • City voters may have the chance this spring to vote on two tax proposals, the first of which Mayor Francis Slay believes could help expand MetroLink and address crime and poverty in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

A second proposal would provide taxpayer money to help build a Major League Soccer stadium downtown.

Slay hopes to get both proposals on the April ballot. If voters approve, the city would issue bonds to finance the projects.

Both plans revolve around voters’ willingness to approve a half-cent sales tax increase the Slay administration estimates could generate as much as $20 million a year. The total combined sales tax rate in St. Louis is 8.67 cents per dollar.

If an increase is approved, the money from that tax would pay for initiatives in four areas: MetroLink expansion, neighborhood development, workforce development and public safety.

The largest portion, or about $10 million per year, would probably secure bonds of an estimated $250 million toward expanding current MetroLink lines. Such a project would be eligible for another $250 million in federal matching funds, the Slay administration says.

The route, which has been estimated to cost $2.2 billion, would stretch from north St. Louis County near the Florissant Valley campus of St. Louis Community College, into downtown and south St. Louis and down Interstate 55 into south St. Louis County.

The mayor has long talked about the need to build a north-south line through the heart of the city, in hopes of improving access to jobs.

Some of the sales tax would also be used to pump money into community-based programs designed to provide an economic jolt to areas that typically don’t see much investment.

Another portion of the sales tax would go toward increasing the number of “job ready” people in the city. The Slay administration said Wednesday that much of this money would be allocated to programs that teach job skills and move people out of low-paying jobs, into careers.

Slay spokeswoman Maggie Crane also said there would be an emphasis on finding meaningful work for women and minorities as part of this component of their plan.

The fourth piece of the sales tax would go toward increasing the number of anti-crime cameras in the city, providing money to maintain them and improving the technology that allows police to monitor the cameras in real-time.

The city currently has 400 of these cameras. Crane said the city could potentially double that number with the revenue generated from the tax.

The second of Slay’s tax proposals depends entirely on the sales tax’s passing.

If voters approve the sales tax, the city’s lesser known “use” tax would also automatically increase by a half-cent, generating an estimated $4 million a year.

Businesses pay the use tax when they buy materials, parts and other goods from out of state.

Voters first approved a city use tax in 2001, with proceeds going to health care and affordable housing. It is now 8.013 percent.

Under Slay’s plan, voters will decide whether the revenue generated by the half-cent increase in the use tax can be used to help fund a downtown soccer stadium.

The ownership group SC STL has said they could ask for as much as $80 million from taxpayers to help fund the $205 million project.

The city could use the $4 million per year to back more bonds for a soccer stadium. But Crane said the money would be contingent on a few conditions.

SC STL would have to actually bring a team to St. Louis; secondly, the city would get a 30-year lease on the stadium, with any cost overruns during construction paid by the ownership group; and lastly, the ownership group would be responsible for any maintenance work needed on the stadium during the city’s 30-year lease.

SC STL spokesman Jim Woodcock said Wednesday that the ownership group was happy with the proposals and willing to go along with the city’s terms.

“Our group’s objective was to balance any risks inherent in bringing a startup MLS team to St. Louis,” Woodcock said. “Public interest in this justifies the investment.”

Although the stadium funding through the use tax cannot happen without voters’ first approving the increased sales tax, members of Slay’s administration were adamant Wednesday that they should be thought of as independent proposals.

“Voters may or may not approve the stadium funding,” Mary Ellen Ponder, the mayor’s chief of staff, wrote in a statement. “That will have no effect on the proposal to fund the four OTHER priorities.”

Aldermanic President Lewis Reed said Wednesday that he did not see the mayor’s two proposals until about an hour before the deadline to get them on the agenda for Friday’s board meeting.

The mayor and 6th Ward Alderman Christine Ingrassia, who is sponsoring both bills, have until Jan. 24 to get the bills passed in time to appear on the April 4 ballot.

Reed, who is running for mayor, called it “the norm” on Slay’s part to write bills without input from city’s legislative branch and then expect the board to “rush on his behalf.”

“At the end of the day, we end up with better and stronger ballot initiatives when you involve as many diverse opinions as possible and people are included in the process,” Reed said.

Alderman Antonio French, 21st Ward, is also running for mayor. He said it was irresponsible for Slay to push through big initiatives just four months before he leaves office.

“Money for new police officers and more pay for current police officers, funding body cameras and funding the basic capital needs of the city — all of these things should be considered before we even discuss tax money for a new stadium,” French said.

Mike Faulk of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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Koran Addo is a reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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