County voters to weigh ‘Arch tax’ next week

Prop P proposes sales tax of 3/16 of one cent

By Gloria Lloyd

In the Tuesday, April 2, election, St. Louis County voters will consider Proposition P, a sales-tax increase that would fund the planned renovation of the Gateway Arch grounds, as well as city and county parks and greenways.

In a campaign supported by the Regional Chamber of Commerce and nearly $1 million in donations from Civic Progress, supporters of the so-called “Arch tax” say the sales tax will bring 4,400 direct and indirect jobs to the region and ensure the future of local treasures, including the Arch and city and county parks. Opponents have raised concerns about the design and transparency of the proposed projects, and question the necessity of an additional sales tax on residents already feeling the pinch of the economic downturn.

What is clear is that the ballot measure, if approved by voters, would add a sales tax of 3/16 of one cent onto nonfood and nonprescription drug purchases made in the city and county. On a $5 purchase, the tax would be less than a cent. The Yes on Prop P campaign estimates those cents will add up to $780 million over 20 years, when state legislation mandates a sunset of the tax.

The text of the proposition reads that the referendum is for “the purpose of increasing safety, security, and public accessibility for the Gateway Arch grounds and local, county and regional parks and trails for families and disabled and elderly visitors, and for providing expanded activities and improvements of such areas.”

To go into effect, the sales tax must be approved in St. Louis County and either St. Louis City or St. Charles, all of which are members of the Great Rivers Greenway District. St. Charles County officials, however, declined to put the tax on next week’s ballot.

In contrast to the tax’s nickname, only about 30 percent of the money raised would go to the Arch, or about $106 million.

The nonprofit CityArchRiver Foundation, which hopes to revitalize the Arch grounds by improving accessibility and connections between the city, Arch and riverfront, has a $380 million plan that will elevate Leonor K. Sullivan Blvd., renovate the Old Courthouse and Kiener Plaza and expand the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial under the Arch. Whether the tax passes or not, construction begins this summer on a pedestrian “lid” over Interstate 70 that will connect the city to the Arch grounds.

If the tax is passed, CityArchRiver organizers plan to use it as leverage for a $90 million bond issue to fund immediate improvements. To pay for the estimated total project cost of $380 million, CityArchRiver counts on an additional $69 million in federal, state and local grants and $209 million in private funds, including an endowment for the Arch’s continued maintenance.

The committee formed to support the ballot measure, Yes on Prop P, raised nearly a million dollars for its campaign, according to campaign-finance reports filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission. Most of that money is from Civic Progress, a group comprised of chief executives of the area’s largest companies.

If the tax goes into effect, an estimated $9.4 million a year will go to the Great Rivers Greenway, or GRG, a public-private partnership primarily supported through a tri-county sales tax passed in 2001. GRG will control 60 percent of the funds collected from the proposed tax, including the funds designated for the Arch projects. If passed, the other 40 percent of the tax will go to the county and city for parks, with $10 million to the county and $2.6 million to the city. The St. Charles County Council declined to put Prop P on the Apr. 2 ballot.

“GRG got involved because we believe strongly that (the Arch project) will help to make St. Louis a better place to live — the Arch renovation will give everyone a safe opportunity to connect from the city to the Arch to the river,” said Susan Trautman, executive director of the Great Rivers Greenway district.

Despite ballot language that provides for an independent annual audit, concern over GRG’s control of Arch funds from the tax was one of the issues cited by the St. Louis County Republican Central Committee at its March 14 meeting when it passed a resolution against the tax. GRG is a public park and recreation district, funded by sales taxes, with a board that is appointed by the St. Louis City mayor and the executives of St. Louis County and St. Charles County.

Gravois Township Republican Committeewoman Jennifer Bird, of Crestwood, has been appearing at forums and events over the past few weeks as part of a group formed in opposition to the tax, Vote No on Proposition P. Besides the tax itself, Bird said she has concerns about transparency and oversight, as well as the proposed demolition of the 1,200-space Arch parking garage.

“For an organization (GRG) that is trying to polish its image of being good stewards of our money — the fact that you’re going to tear down a just-paid-for, 1,200-space parking garage? Actions speak louder than words,” Bird said. “(The pro-Prop P campaign has) a lot of emotional points, but there’s no substance behind it.”

Sixth District St. Louis County Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, voted in January to send the issue to county voters. Last year, St. Louis County Chief Executive Charlie Dooley threatened to close dozens of county parks to make the 2013-14 parks budget. Stenger led a budget committee that found alternative cuts that required no park closings.

“To say that this tax is in some way needed because our parks system is in trouble … it’s unnecessary for that purpose,” Stenger told the Call in January. “But if a voter wants to vote for the tax because it would improve the Arch grounds … then I think that would at least be a legitimate basis to vote for the tax.”

With the money from the project, GRG could build greenways that would otherwise take years to build, Trautman said. One of the key projects slated for south county could connect Grant’s Trail to the River des Peres Greenway to Jefferson Barracks Park. Projects like those in the “River Ring” of greenways and trails spanning the region could have a big impact on what the region looks like in the future, she noted.

“All that connectivity is a really important part of the future of the greenway system,” she said. “It makes it possible for people to go from one community to another.”