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St. Louis County voters will decide Arch tax's fate in April

In Region

9:14 pm on Tue, 01.15.13

St. Louis County voters will decide this April the fate of a sales tax increase aimed at improving the Gateway Arch grounds and bolstering local trails and parks.

The St. Louis County Council unanimously voted Tuesday to place a 3/16th of one cent sales tax increase on the April 2 ballot. St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley supports the proposal and will almost certainly sign Councilman Mike O’Mara’s measure.

Legislation signed last year allows the St. Louis Board of Aldermen and the county councils in St. Louis County and St. Charles County to put a 3/16th of one cent tax boost on the ballot. 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, many of them in St. Louis County.

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen is expected to give final passage to the proposal on Friday. St. Charles County voters will not vote on the measure in April because county council members there missed a deadline to get the tax increase on the ballot in time for the April elections.

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 the other two jurisdictions. If St. Louis and St. Louis County voters approve the measure, it is expected to raise about $31 million a year. About $9.3 million would go to finance bonds paying for certain aspects of the CityArchRiver proposal.

Mike O'Mara
Mike O'Mara

While the plan — colloquially known as the "Arch tax" — sparked hours of passionate debate last Friday at the Board of Aldermen, it elicited almost no debate among the council’s seven members. O’Mara, D-Florissant, told reporters that the measure’s easy passage reflected a desire to give voters the ultimate decision on the increase.

“There are seven of us representing close to a million people," O'Mara said. "And I think that the residents should decide whether they want it or not. That’s the fairness of letting the council decide whether to present it to the voters."

Still, the proposal didn’t completely escape criticism. Tom Sullivan, a University City resident who spoke against the proposed tax last week, once again criticized the measure as a misplaced priority for the county.

"Some parts of the county are in terrible condition; high crime rates, deteriorating housing, also schools where an increasing amount of students are failing to learn," Sullivan said.

"Sending more tax dollars to downtown St. Louis while failing to address problems in the county will only make the situation worse," he said.

Asked if he thought voters in the St. Louis County would be receptive to the sales tax increase, O’Mara said "it’s hard to say" how a vote would turn out.

"We’re still running through some tough economic times," O’Mara said. "But what we did is present it to the voters. And we’re going to let them decide on it. But I think in the long run, hopefully it will benefit our St. Louis County parks and our St. Louis region."

O’Mara introduces smoking ban expansion

Meanwhile, O’Mara introduced at Tuesday's meeting  a bill that would remove some exemptions from the county's smoking ban. St. Louis County voters approved the measure in 2009.

Among other things, the bill would remove exemptions that allow people to smoke at casinos and at bars in which 25 percent or less of their sales are food.

O’Mara said the bill was aimed at "creating a fair playing field for these bars and restaurants across St. Louis County." He added that the bill will receive a public hearing, which O'Mara described as a way to forge a compromise with various stakeholders.

“The intention is to get this back to a fair playing field for the businesses that have been hurt by this particular ordinance,” O’Mara said. “The people have spoken. They do want a county-wide smoking bill. But at this time, there are exemptions in there that are unfair for some businesses. And some businesses are reaping the benefits from those that have lost businesses.”

O’Mara’s bill prompted a roughly 40-minute public forum session, which included comments from Bill Hannegan, a longtime critic of the smoking ban. He told the council that it should take a different approach in deciding which businesses can be exempted from the ban.

"Please don’t scrap the exemptions that county voters voted for," Hannegan said. "Instead, keep the exemptions to make it more fair. I suggest substituting 'over 21' for 'food sales' as criteria for exemptions. If a business is willing to limit its patronage to adults, then it can be exempt from the smoking restriction. Under such a rule, very few businesses would be hurt. Tweaking the existing exemptions in this way is closer to the will of the voters than scraping the exemptions altogether."

One supporter of the move was Marty Ginsburg, the owner of the Sports Page in Chesterfield. Ginsburg called O’Mara’s proposal "fabulous."

"The whole issue is about health and safety," Ginsburg said. "There used to be nights that I couldn’t fall asleep until I literally threw up,  until then I couldn't lie down on the pillow. I don’t have that problem anymore.

"But the ordinance has killed us for two years," he added. It’s not a level playing field. It’s not fair."

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