County Council votes 4-3 to hold bill authorizing Metro funding

By EVAN YOUNG

Some St. Louis County councilmen want to know what the future holds for public transportation in certain regions of the county before voting “yes” on the annual transportation sales-tax appropriation to the Metro transit agency.

The County Council voted 4-3 last week to delay for one week the final passage of legislation authorizing the 2009-2010 appropriation of 50 percent of the half-cent transportation sales tax to Metro.

Voting in favor of holding the bill were 3rd District Councilman Colleen Wasinger, R-Town and Country; 5th District Councilman Barbara Fraser, D-University City; 6th District Councilman Steve Stenger, D-south county; and 7th District Councilman Greg Quinn, R-Ballwin.

Opposed were 1st District Councilman and Chair Hazel Erby, D-University City; 2nd District Councilman Kathleen Burkett, D-Overland; and 4th District Councilman Mike O’Mara, D-north county.

Metro annually receives county funding through two primary sources: 50 percent of the revenue from a half-cent transportation sales tax, which dates back to 1973, and revenue from another, quarter-cent sales tax that county voters approved as Proposition M in 1993, half of which is used for operation of MetroLink and half is set aside for future MetroLink construction. The other 50 percent of the 1973 half-cent sales tax funds road repairs.

But councilmen expressed concern Aug. 25 about what may happen to public transit services in certain parts of the county once Metro’s temporary restoration plan ends next May.

Facing mounting budget problems, the Metro Board of Commissioners in December approved substantial service cuts by eliminating hundreds of jobs, decreasing Metro-Link light-rail train service by 32 percent and halting Metro-Bus and Call-A-Ride services in parts of west and south county outside of Interstate 270.

Those cuts took effect March 30, but several discontinued bus routes subsequently were restored Aug. 3 after Metro received $12 million in one-time federal stimulus funds and roughly $7 million over two years in Federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality grant money from the Federal Transit Administration.

But Metro’s restoration plan is scheduled to end in May unless more funding is secured, and the councilmen who voted to hold the agency’s funding bill last week fear that could spell out permanent service elimination in parts of their districts.

County funding for Metro dropped by $10 million in both 2008 and 2009. In addition, a second half-cent transportation sale-tax ballot measure, also called Prop M, was defeated in November — rejected by 51 percent of county voters.

Metro President and Chief Operating Officer Bob Baer has said he wants to see another transportation sales-tax proposition go before voters in April. The council, however, has yet to receive such legislation.

In making the motion last week to delay the Metro legislation’s final passage, Quinn said he wanted Baer’s assurance that large areas of the county won’t see “complete elimination” of transit service after next spring. Quinn voted against the bill’s initial approval Aug. 18 for the same reason.

“As I mentioned, a cutback is one thing, and I think there were cutbacks throughout St. Louis city and St. Louis County,” Quinn told the council Aug. 25. “But complete elimination of service to everyone including the elderly and the disabled is completely unfair when the people in those areas pay the tax just like everybody else does.”

Stenger told the Call after last week’s council meeting that he desires the same assurances for public transit in south county.

“I met with Metro earlier today and I asked them multiple times: ‘What is the future of south county?’ and no one would answer,” Stenger said. “And I think I owe it to my constituents who are paying their tax dollars toward Metro to know what the future holds.

“I can’t help but be parochial and say: ‘What is south county going to get?’ And until I know that, I have a hard time funding it. I certainly don’t want to harm the county as a whole by any means, but south county has been left out of this Metro issue for too long. And if by a ‘no’ vote or abstention vote, we get Metro’s attention, then that’s what we have to do. But I think we need to think as a district and hold it for now, until we can get that question answered.”

Metro “took for granted” it would receive this year’s appropriation — and the 6th District councilman’s affirmative vote for it, Stenger said.

“We’ve been given no data, but an appropriation has been requested of us … It’s unacceptable,” he said. “As the new councilman, faced with this appropriation essentially for the first time, and given no data, I’m not going to vote for it. I want to hold it, and if I don’t get the answers that I want to get for our district, I’m going to vote ‘no.'”

Metro officials could not be reached for comment by press time Monday.

Regarding service cuts, Dooley said Metro is doing the best it can now with limited resources. He criticized Quinn last week for holding up the legislation and not supporting an effort to “move our community forward” — a statement that ignited a rather heated argument between the two elected officials.

“Bob Baer, Mr. Baer, cannot promise you anything after next year, depending on what the vote (on a new transportation sales tax) is, if it’s going to be voted on in April, which the council has not actually acted on,” Dooley told Quinn. “There are no guarantees, but the guarantee now is, people can get to work. That’s important …

“Bob Baer, one individual, does not stop this community from moving forward. Collectively, we have a responsibility to this community. We got the stimulus package, everybody complained about it. We finally got some money to put people back to work, open up some of those avenues. We need to deal with that at that point in time. But to sit here and hold this is inappropriate and is not showing responsibility as elected officials for this entire county and workforce of St. Louis County.”

Quinn responded, “Mr. Dooley, I would take any assurance you could give us, any leadership that you could give us, that large areas of St. Louis County will not have complete elimination of service while other areas have service. I think that what we need to do, and I think you need to do this, is you need to show leadership. In a complete area, west county, 150,000 people have had no service after the last round of cuts. That was apparently, according to Mr. Baer, something that was done at the behest of your office. Large areas of south county are the same way, they have no service. They pay the tax just like everyone else does …

“It’s completely unconscionable for that to occur, and some leadership needs to be exercised to make sure that doesn’t happen again. I would hope that you would be able to give us assurances that you’re not going to allow a very large area of the county to go completely without service.”

Dooley replied, “Let me say this to Mr. Quinn, with all due respect. Leadership and money is one thing. The leadership is here. We’re talking about moving this community forward. Every part of St. Louis County experienced cuts, every single part. The city of St. Louis experienced cuts. If the money is not there, the money is not there, period. That’s a fact. So to indicate that south county or west county are the only ones that experienced cuts … it’s just an untruth and you are poorly informed.

“And to put this on someone else, this is your responsibility … We’re talking about right now, we have enough money to put people back to work right now. This right here. If we don’t have the money to do it, it has to come from somewhere. We had to do it realistically. There were cuts made, there’s no question about it.

“Life is unfair at times, but we’re doing the very best we can with what we have to work with to move our community forward. But for you to sit up here and to say there’s no leadership, there’s no responsibility, that’s untrue,” Dooley said. “We’re doing everything we possibly can, and my friend, you have voted against the MetroLink from day one. You have never been supportive, and for you to sit here and be two-faced about this issue is unconscionable.”

“I don’t think there’s anything two-faced about it,” Quinn said.

“Yes you are. You are two-faced,” Dooley replied.

Quinn said, “Well, I would like you to assure the elderly and the sick …”

Dooley interjected, “I’m just saying to sit up here and say what you just said, and to hold this community hostage with some of the untruths you just said is unfortunate.”

As the council took a roll-call vote on holding the bill, both Wasinger and Fraser also said they were worried about permanent service elimination in their respective districts.

“Earlier this year, this council voted to agree to $10 million less money spent on Metro than it had spent in previous years,” Fraser said. “We had a more clear, 50-50 percentage of money for public works and Metro. And, in fact, this council perfected that bill with a 6-1 vote. I was the one, singular, negative vote at that time because I felt that Metro deserved and needed that extra $10 million.

“And I’m very distressed that, in fact, areas of my district, 5th District St. Louis County, south county, in fact, have been hurt by some of these cuts. I do think Metro is crucial to our area. It is a vital part of our area, and MetroLink, MetroBuses, all of that is crucial to getting people to work. I do not see an issue with holding it for a week.”

After the vote, Dooley advised the council to “take responsibility for their actions.”

“And to sit up here and talk about leadership, from this individual from that end of the table, from Mr. Quinn, that doesn’t say anything at anytime for any reason other than foolishness.”

Addressing the audience in the council chamber, Dooley said, “What they’re playing right now is pure politics at its worst — at its worst. And I’m to the point whereas, I’m a realistic individual, I’ll work with anybody. But to sit up here and mislead people intentionally is truly unfortunate, and I’m not going to put up with it anymore.

“You’re either going to tell the truth, or not tell the truth. To indicate that this council don’t care about senior citizens, anyplace in this county, is untrue. It is silly and inappropriate. We’re concerned about every citizen in this community, wherever they live. If it’s south county, north county, west county or central, it makes no difference.

“But my friends, if you don’t have the money, somebody’s going to get cut. It’s unfortunate. We’ve got to do the very best that we can, to show leadership, to move our community forward. I would suggest to you that, if some people on this council would’ve supported the MetroLink, we wouldn’t be in this condition today; it would be resolved …,” Dooley said. “But it’s unfortunate when you’re just in it for political football that makes no sense whatsoever. We got the money. Move forward. And that’s it.”

Stenger, however, maintained that delaying the appropriation “is not a game.”

“It’s real. This is the residents of the 6th District getting their share of their Metro tax dollars, and that’s what I’m fighting for,” he told the Call. “Those who would call this a game, and call it ‘political football’ are in fact the individuals who are calling the shots on this issue. They’re the ones who are allocating the money, but it’s my job to either appropriate it or not appropriate it.

“Once again, we’re seeing checks and balances in action here, and if those who are going to be calling the shots on the allocations cut the 6th District out, then I’m going to exercise my check and balance and vote ‘no’ on the appropriation.”