St. Louis County Council gives initial OK to putting 'Arch tax' on April ballot
St. Louis County residents are closer to voting on a tax increase to pay for improvements around the Gateway Arch grounds and to provide funding for local parks and trails.
The St. Louis County Council gave initial approval on Tuesday to a bill placing a sales tax hike of 3/16 of a cent on the April 2 ballot. Councilman Mike O’Mara’s bill will likely get a final vote at next week’s council meeting.
St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley talks to reporters about whether St. Louis County voters will be receptive to an "Arch tax."
About 60 percent of the proceeds from the measure will be split between Great Rivers Greenway to develop trails throughout the region and to the CityArchRiver project. The other 40 percent will go to local parks, many of them in St. Louis County.
If passed by all three counties, the plan could raise about $38 million a year, of which roughly $11.4 million would go the CityArchRiver project.
St. Louis County’s vote is critical. If voters don’t approve a ballot initiative there, it won’t be implemented – even if the tax increase passes in St. Louis and St. Charles County. The Board of Aldermen is slated to act on the measure in the next couple weeks, although the measure’s fate is unclear in St. Charles County.
Boosters of the project say the sales tax increase could go a long way toward improving the Arch grounds. St. Louis County officials are also bullish about more revenue for their parks system, which was at the center of an intense budget fight in 2011.
But critics of the proposal have wondered aloud whether the money going toward the Arch project could be put to better use. Others have questioned the wisdom of directing sales tax money toward improving a national park.
One critic of the proposal was Tom Sullivan, a University City resident who spoke during the council’s public forum.
Sullivan said that raising sales taxes would make the region less competitive for businesses. He also said that directing sales tax money to help a national park “made little sense.”
“What’s next? Sending sales tax for aircraft carriers?” Sullivan said.
He also said plenty of St. Louis County tax dollars were going to downtown, including money toward the Edward Jones Dome, the region’s convention and visitors' bureau and Busch Stadium.
“The particular problem is that most of the funds would be spent by another board made up of political appointees that wouldn’t answer to anyone,” Sullivan said. “If the Arch tax makes it to the ballot, I’m confident it will be defeated.”
St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley said the proposal’s chances in St. Louis County will depend on how it’s presented. He added that the proposal had “benefits to enhancing the St. Louis metropolitan area.”
“If the people feel that this is a benefit and is in their best interest, they will vote for it,” said Dooley, who repeated that he would leave the campaign to pass the measure up to area civic and business groups.
Dooley also defended the county’s involvement in regional initiatives, noting that such contributions make defining elements of the St. Louis area possible.
“There are some statements made tonight that St. Louis County shouldn’t be involved in this or should be involved in that,” Dooley said. “If St. Louis County wasn’t a part of a lot of things in this regional area, we would have nothing. There would be no parks system. There would be no Metro. There would be no Rams. No Cardinals. All the things that people brag about, it wouldn’t exist.
“For someone to say that we shouldn’t do it, that is not the St. Louis way,” he added. “It’s a charitable community. We work together as a community. And how do we bring value to our community when we don’t invest in our community? We can expect no one to value our home unless we value it first.”
In another Arch tax-related development, the Great Rivers Greenway board of directors voted to establish the “Safe & Accessible Arch Citizens Committee.” Great Rivers Greenway described the committee as an “advisory group of citizens that will provide input on the CityArchRiver 2015 project.”
"To carry out our mission of making the region a better place to live, we have to consider the implications of our projects and the desires of the people,” said Great Rivers Greenway executive director Susan Trautman in a statement “The CityArchRiver 2015 project is incredibly transformative, seeking to reconnect St. Louis to its river. We are issuing a broad call for input because this project has the potential to transform the entire region.”
Changing of the guard
As is custom during the council’s first meeting of the year, the council selected a new chairman and a new vice chairman for 2013.
Councilwoman Kathleen Burkett, D-Overland, was elected as the council’s chairman. Members of the council then tabbed Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, to be vice chairman.
Democrats have a 5-2 majority on the council. The council rotates the chairmanship and vice chairmanship every year.
Burkett replaces Councilman Mike O’Mara, a Florissant Democrat who served as chairman throughout 2012.