Citizens’ group forming to oppose MetroLink sales-tax hike

Don’t let Metro’s loss in court impact system’s future, Dooley says

By MIKE ANTHONY

A citizens’ committee is being formed to oppose a proposed half-cent sales-tax increase placed on the Feb. 5 ballot by the County Council to expand MetroLink and provide maintenance to Metro light-rail trains and buses.

Oakville resident Aaron Hilmer told the Call he will serve as treasurer of the Citizens Against Prop M, which will be formally established this week.

Hilmer, who is chairman of the Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors, previously served as treasurer of No Accountability, No on A, a citizens’ committee established to oppose a 97-cent tax-rate increase placed on the February 2006 ballot by the Mehlville Board of Education.

Mehlville School District voters overwhelmingly rejected the 97-cent tax-rate increase, called Proposition A, in the Feb. 7, 2006, election.

Hilmer and Bonnie Stegman were elected to the Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors in April 2005 after campaigning as reform candidates looking to eliminate fiscal waste and roll back a 33-cent tax-rate increase. In August, Hilmer and Stegman joined board member Ed Ryan in setting the fire district’s “blended” fiscal 2008 tax rate at 60.9 cents per $100 — 42.1 percent less than the legal maximum of $1.05 the board could levy and 12.8 percent less than the current rate of 69.8 cents per $100.

County Executive Charlie Dooley proposed the countywide half-cent, sales-tax increase to expand MetroLink to the west and north and provide maintenance to Metro light-rail trains and buses. The County Council voted 5-2 Nov. 13 to place Proposition M on the Feb. 5 ballot.

As proposed, the half-cent sales tax would be added on top of the quarter-cent sales tax that county residents already are paying for Metro operations. The proposed half-cent sales-tax increase is split into two parts — a quarter-cent increase that would expand the MetroLink line north to Florissant and west to Westport and a quarter-cent increase that would provide additional revenue for maintenance of existing Metro operations.

The measure would have a 20-year sunset and generate an estimated $75 million to $80 million per year for Metro operations.

Sixth District County Councilman John Campisi, R-south county, and 7th District Councilman Greg Quinn, R-Ballwin, cast the two “no” votes Nov. 13. With the expansion of MetroLink to south county currently off the table, Campisi previously has said he sees no reason why he or south county residents should support the sales-tax increase.

Hilmer agrees with Campisi, saying he believes Dooley and a majority of the County Council are unresponsive to the needs of south county residents. A perfect example, he said, is the county’s plans to establish trash districts, which south county residents are vehemently opposing.

“… This issue, Prop M, should be of particular interest to residents of south county as none of this 200-percent sales-tax in-crease will benefit us at all — and that’s from a quarter-cent currently and now they want to add half a cent more. This is on top of the ill-conceived trash district plan that County Executive Charlie Dooley has pushed on us. It’s clear that neither Metro or Charlie Dooley can be trusted with any more of our tax dollars,” he said.

“That Mr. Dooley has never met a tax in-crease he didn’t like,” Hilmer added. “He just seems to be hell bent on increasing taxes for people countywide.”

Describing Citizens Against Prop M as a “grass-roots” organization, Hilmer said, “It’s the same people who in the last three years have helped to overturn the Mehlville fire board with the firefighters’ union-backed incumbents. We’ve replaced them with re-form candidates. We then led a campaign to help send the Mehlville School District’s 97-cent tax increase in February of ’06 to historical defeat. We came into contact with Mr. Tom Sullivan. He’s graciously agreed to share his knowledge of the wasteful practices of Metro and we’ll be utilizing that during our campaign.”

Sullivan, a political activist best known as a critic of the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District, is spokesman of the Public Transit Accountability Project, which urges that the main priority for Metro should be providing service for those dependent on public transit. The group also promotes greater accountability and openness for how Metro spends the tax dollars it receives.

On Friday, a jury ruled against Metro and found in favor of a group of companies called the Cross County Collaborative that had designed and built the extension of MetroLink from Clayton to Shrewsbury.

Metro had sought more than $80 million from the companies — Parsons Brinckerhoff, Jacobs Civil Inc., STV Inc. and Kwame Building Group — alleging they were responsible for delays and cost overruns on the project.

The companies had countersued for nearly $6 million and the jury awarded them more than $2.5 million.

Sullivan and Hilmer believe the verdict provides even more incentive for voters to oppose Proposition M.

“I think they gave the correct verdict in the case, but it’s unfortunate for taxpayers that they’re going to have to pick up the legal tab, which is probably going to be $15 million to $20 million, at least,” Sullivan told the Call. “We won’t know the final amount until we get the state audit completed.

“The proposed sales tax has no chance of passing whether they keep Larry Salci or they fire him,” he said of Metro’s president and chief executive officer. “It had no chance before. It’s going to even have less of a chance now. If they were smart, they’d go to court and have it taken off the ballot.”

Of Friday’s verdict, Hilmer said, “I think it will definitely help the campaign. Our campaign’s real simple. It’s about two things — affordability and accountability.

“Residents who just got stuck with another round of 30-percent reassessments don’t need to be spending more money every time they go shopping or fill up their tank, especially to an organization as badly run as Metro — whether it’s their latest project of pork, the Cross County Extension that had $150 million in cost overruns, their refusal to turn over documents so they can be audited or the sheer arrogance of Metro’s $250,000-a-year head Larry Salci, as evidenced in his contempt of St. Louis on the recent Channel 2 ‘You Paid for It.”’

Hilmer was referring to Salci’s KTVI-TV appearance on Nov. 8 when Salci was overheard saying the following of station re-porter Elliott Davis — “He fits right into St. Louis. He’s a (bleeping) clown.”

In a statement released after Friday’s verdict, Dooley said, “I’m disappointed with today’s ruling. My staff and I are looking at this decision and studying the options. I believe it is clear that some changes need to be made, but for this community to continue to grow and be economically competitive, a healthy transportation system is essential. Therefore, I believe we cannot let today’s ruling impact moving ahead with Metro’s future.”