Council eyes final OK of Metro financial pact

Approval of county measure would trigger city sales tax

By EVAN YOUNG

Legislation that would forge a financial agreement between St. Louis County and the Metro transit agency if a sales-tax ballot measure were to pass this spring was up for a final vote Tuesday — after the Call went to press.

The County Council voted 4-0 Dec. 29 to initially approve a bill that binds Metro to a series of fiscal provisions for it to receive revenue from a new, half-cent sales tax that county voters will consider April 6.

Voting in favor of the measure were 1st District Chair Hazel Erby, D-University City; 4th District Councilman Mike O’Mara, D-north county; 5th District Vice Chair Barbara Fraser, D-University City; and 6th District Councilman Steve Stenger, D-south county.

Second District Councilman Kathleen Burkett, D-Overland; 3rd District Councilman Colleen Wasinger, R-Town and Country; and 7th District Councilman Greg Quinn, R-Ballwin, were absent from the Dec. 29 meeting. County Executive Charlie Dooley also was absent.

Councilmen voted 4-3 last month to place the half-cent sales-tax proposal on April’s ballot.

If it’s successful, Metro would use half of the $75 million anticipated annual revenue for operations and half for expansion projects, officials have said. Metro already receives revenue from a quarter-cent county sales tax and half the revenue from another half-cent county sales tax.

A successful county initiative also would trigger the collection of a quarter-cent sales tax approved by city voters in 1997.

But Wasinger, who voted against putting the proposal on the ballot, said Metro was asking for “too much money.” She subsequently asked for legislation that would require more fiscal oversight of the agency.

Under the pending bill, co-sponsored by Erby and Fraser, Metro would sign a contract with the county promising to:

• Ensure federal funding is “part of the funding mechanism” before pursuing any “material expansion” of its transit services, including MetroLink light-rail and Metro-Bus.

• Submit to and pay for performance audits of its management and operations by an external audit body every three years.

Bob Baer, Metro president and chief executive officer, said recently he has no problem with Wasinger’s request, but noted the agency already conducts annual financial audits.

Financial difficulties that followed the November 2008 defeat of a similar half-cent county sales-tax ballot measure led Metro to raise rider fares, eliminate light-rail and bus service and cut hundreds of jobs. One-time stimulus and grant funding helped temporarily restore some of the eliminated service, but that money is expected to run out in May, officials have said.

Without additional revenue, Metro would be forced to further reduce transit service and could not proceed with its long-range plan to expand and enhance both bus and light-rail service throughout the St. Louis region, officials have said.