CLAYTON • St. Louis County voters will be asked to approve a sales tax increase, expected to create $80 million for law enforcement upgrades for the county and its many municipalities.
The measure will appear on the April 4 municipal election ballot.
Under the formula presented to the County Council on Tuesday, the tax would generate $46 million a year to enable the county police to hire additional officers, increase training and add technology such as body and dash cameras.
The remainder of the revenue, about $34 million, would be divided among the 57 municipal police agencies in the county. Population would determine the amount of funding distributed to each department.
The municipalities would be given the latitude to spend the money as needed, with the stipulation that it be directed solely toward public safety.
“We’re talking about improving public safety and also about allowing our officers to do their job safely and having the equipment and manpower necessary for them to do that,” said County Executive Steve Stenger.
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar will take the lead in selling the one-half of 1 percent sales tax to the public in advance of the April election.
Belmar said the additional revenue would enable his department and other agencies to “build capacity, and we’re going to build safety, and we’re going to do this on behalf of the community.” Belmar spoke at the conclusion of a County Council hearing on the proposed referendum.
Belmar said the “inordinate amount of overtime” paid to officers since the 2014 unrest ($3 million this year) in Ferguson entered into the decision to seek the tax increase.
But a more crucial factor, Belmar said, is a pressing need to add a minimum of 120 recruits to reduce the burden on the 880 men and women now reporting for county police shifts.
The chief said additional officers would create more opportunities for community policing, allow the department to bolster the number of two-partner patrol cars and raise current salaries (approximately $53,000 annually) of the rank and file.
The influx of $46 million, Belmar added, would also pave the way for the purchase of cutting-edge law enforcement technology.
County police currently have access to 95 body cameras on loan from a private provider. The units are used almost exclusively by the department’s tactical unit, or SWAT team.
The county can’t afford additional body and dash cameras now, Belmar told council members.
“The taxpayers will have the ability to give us the money so we can afford more.”
The county for the past two legislative sessions has unsuccessfully lobbied state lawmakers for a ballot measure to increase the sales tax by one-fourth of one cent to buttress law enforcement in unincorporated sections of the county.
Stenger said state statutes allow the county to mount an independent ballot initiative to increase county spending for policing.
The county executive would not rule out setting aside a portion of the sales tax revenue to raise the salaries of Justice Center corrections officers who have waged a yearlong campaign for higher pay.
Executive Director Pat Kelly said the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis will likely support the ballot initiative when it comes before the membership in January.
“I have heard nothing but positive comments from most of the elected officials we have spoken with,” Kelly told council members.
A generally supportive council signed off Tuesday on placing the measure on the April ballot.
West County Republican Mark Harder, however, expressed misgivings about an initiative with the potential to increase the sales tax to 10 cents on the dollar at some locations in the county.
The sales tax announcement coincided with the release of the proposed 2017 county budget, which falls 11.6 percent below 2016 funding levels.
The $631.5 million package is $82 million short of the county’s allotment for infrastructure, salaries and services this year.
Stenger, in an executive summary, attributed the decrease to sluggish and lower revenues from taxes on property, utilities and overall services.
Wages and associated costs covering public safety, health and general revenue account for the largest outlays of county spending.
The budget says $106.3 million will be required to fund police operations in 2017.
Stenger said the county has benefited from a “steady rate” of growth — 1.9 percent since the end of the recession in 2010.
Sales tax revenue during that period has risen by 4.1 percent.
Those gains have however been offset by downturns in revenue from property taxes (down 0.5 percent annually), utilities (down 1 percent annually) and services (down 0.7 percent annually).