Board of Aldermen gives initial OK to Arch tax, St. Charles County still reluctant
After gaining initial approval this week in St. Louis County, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen took a big step toward sending a 3/16 of a cent sales tax increase to voters to pay for enhancements around the Gateway Arch and to provide funding for parks and trails around the region.
While voters in both those jurisdictions appear likely to vote on the measure April 2, voters in St. Charles County may not have their say any time soon.
On Friday, the board voted to place Alderwoman Phyllis Young’s bill on the April 2 ballot. The St. Louis County Council also initially passed similar legislation on Tuesday.
Young’s bill passed with 23 "yea" votes, three "no" votes and one alderman voting "present."
About 60 percent of the proceeds from the measure would be split between Great Rivers Greenway to develop trails throughout the region and to the CityArchRiver project. The other 40 percent would go to local parks. If passed by all three counties, the plan could raise about $38 million a year, of which roughly $11.4 million would go the Arch project.
“It would make an incredible difference in not only the tourism here, but also the attitudes of the people that live in the community,” said Young, D-7th Ward. “Because they could say ‘we live in a phenomenal region. We support things that are wonderful for our families. We are building our community daily.’”
While members of the St. Louis County Council initially approved their ballot initiative in a matter of minutes, Young’s bill went through several hours of debate.
Among other things, Alderman Scott Ogilvie, I-24th Ward, said the proceeds from the sales tax increase would generally benefit tourists -- and not people who actually reside in St. Louis.
“It’s not aimed at improving the quality of life for most of the people" who live in the city," Ogilvie said. “It’s aimed at improving the tourism experience for people visiting St. Louis."
“The Arch is great – it’s a wonderful symbol for St. Louis,” he added. “But it’s hardly a silver bullet that leads to a successful city." He added that since the Arch was topped off in October 1965, the city has lost hundreds of thousands of people.
Alderman Antonio French, D-21st Ward, described the sales tax proposal as another attempt at trying to transform the city with “the next big thing.” He added it would be more prudent to start “focusing our resources on our neighborhoods for those folks that stuck it out.”
“I don’t think anybody can argue that downtown, Washington Avenue and Citygarden look wonderful,” French said, “I enjoy taking my family there when I can. But what’s happening north of that and south of that is continued population loss. People are leaving the city. People are still afraid to live in certain neighborhoods in the city. Buildings are falling down. Our infrastructure is falling down. And there is not one single project that’s going to save that.”
Ogilvie also said that various sources of funding are already available to place a “lid” over Interstate 70 and to refurbish Leonor K. Sullivan Blvd. He desrcibed the status quo as the "silver project" and the sales tax increase proposal as the "platinum project."
But Alderwoman Lyda Krewson, D-28th Ward, said not going forward with a more robust plan to refurbish the Arch grounds would amount to a missed opportunity.
“When we start thinking small like that and think that’s good enough, we are aspiring to be not great," Krewson said. "Which is not what I aspire to – I aspire to have the absolute best thing we can have on the riverfront as a destination for our city.”
Young’s bill needs to be passed one more time before it goes to the voters.
Looking grim in St. Charles
While the tax increase’s legislative progress has been relatively smooth in the St. Louis and St. Louis County, it has been a completely different story in St. Charles County.
St. Charles Councilman Joe Brazil, R-Defiance, told the Beacon Thursday that no bill has been proposed yet to put the tax increase on the ballot for April. That's important, since the initiatives face a Jan. 22 deadline to appear on the April 2 ballot.
Young said on Friday that if St. Charles voters don’t approve the ballot initiative, the annual revenue from the tax increase would drop from $38 million to $31 million. That would mean $9.3 million would go annually to the CityArchRiver portion of the tax increase. The measure must pass in St. Louis County and one other jurisdiction to become effective.
One issue, said Great Rivers Greenway executive director Susan Trautman, was that St. Charles County wanted her organization to pay the costs of holding an election. GRG's board rejected that prospect earlier this week.
She said such a move would be unfair to residents of St. Louis County and the city that fund Great Rivers Greenway, an organization created in 2000 to foster a regional trails system.
“Remember, we collect a regional parks tax. Sixty percent of our revenue comes from St. Louis County and 20 percent from St. Louis,” said Trautman, who added there were legal questions about such a move. “So if we pay for an election in St. Charles County, 80 percent of the money would be coming from the other two jurisdictions. And so, the board believes that is an unwise and inappropriate use of public money.
“Even if it was legal, this is not right to use other jurisdictions’ money to pay for an election in St. Charles County,” she added.
While she said that some St. Charles municipalities were very helpful and receptive to the proposal, Trautman was not optimistic that St. Charles County would put the measure on the ballot anytime soon.
“I know I’ve been to St. Charles County no less than eight times,” Trautman said. “And we have accommodated very single request we’ve had and they still have issues and are opposed. I would have to assume that they’re not really interested.”
In some sense, it’s not surprising the tax increase is having trouble making headway in St. Charles County. Last year, St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann said that the plan amounts to a “bailout” of the federal government.
And Brazil questioned whether the measure would provide any discernible benefits to St. Charles residents, who are farther away from the Arch than the other two jurisdictions.
“My question was: How is this going to benefit St. Charles County? How is it going to benefit my constituents? I’ve never seen any data that support that it does,” said Brazil, whose district incorporates St. Charles County’s wine district. “And [we’ve] got to be careful. Here we have a national park. And they’re asking us to put money in it. I get it. It’s a regional attraction. But what’s next?
"We’ve got the Katy Trail. That’s a state park that runs through all of St. Charles County," he added. "What happens if the state comes in and says, ‘Hey, we’re really running short on budget years. Since you took on the Arch grounds, why don’t you take on the Katy Trail?’”