County’s proposed bond issue ‘dead’

Dooley proposes debt-service tax decrease

Steve Stenger

Steve Stenger

By BURKE WASSON

A proposed $120 million bond issue to fund St. Louis County infrastructure projects is “dead,” according to 6th District County Councilman Steve Stenger, D-south county.

“It’s my understanding that it’s dead,” Stenger said. “I believe it’s dead and I’m fine with it being that way.”

Democratic County Executive Charlie Dooley had requested that the County Council resubmit the bond issue, which was defeated in the November election, to county voters in April. But when the deadline to place a proposition on the April ballot expired Jan. 27, the County Council had not given approval.

Asked recently if county officials would pursue a court order to place the bond issue on the April ballot, county spokesman Mac Scott said that the measure is “dropped from consideration.”

Instead, Dooley late Monday afternoon asked the County Council to drop the county’s debt-service tax rate by 3.5 cents per $100 as part of an economic-stimulus proposal.

“The mounting number of job losses in recent weeks and its impact on our community demands that we take action on keeping St. Louis Countians in their homes with some money in their pockets,” Dooley stated in a news release.

Additionally, county officials are calling on all local taxing districts to follow their lead and drop tax rates.

“We’re also encouraging other taxing jurisdictions to lower their rates as well, as would I,” Stenger said. “I’m definitely in support of anything we can do to lower property-tax rates.”

On Jan. 20, the council held a bill to place the bond issue on the April ballot. Fourth District Councilman Mike O’Mara, D-north county, moved to hold the bill because the council did not have enough votes that evening to perfect it.

The council met Jan. 20 with five of its seven members present as 1st District Council Chair Hazel Erby, D-University City, and 5th District Council Vice Chair Barbara Fraser, D-University City, were ab-sent to attend President Barack Obama’s inauguration in Washington, D.C.

Dooley also was absent from the council’s Jan. 20 meeting to attend Obama’s inauguration, despite the county executive’s presence at council meetings required by the County Charter.

With three of five votes needed Jan. 20 to perfect the bond-issue bill, Stenger told O’Mara that he was opposed.

“I did not support the initiative,” Stenger said. “I was opposed to it … I advised Mike O’Mara, who was the acting chairman, that I was not going to vote ‘yes’ and I was voting ‘no.’ And as a result, they did not have the votes for perfection.

“(County Counselor) Pat Redington came down to me on the dais … Why she came down to me was to ask me if I really was going to vote ‘no.’ And I said: ‘Yes, I’m voting ‘no.’ She reminded me that if I voted ‘no’ that it was going to affect the time period for the initiative and that there was a deadline for it. I said: ‘Well, I’m voting ‘no.'”

Since that Jan. 20 meeting, Stenger said he has heard criticism, but is not bothered by it.

“I got a lot of heat,” Stenger said. “I’ve gotten a lot of heat on it. And to be frankly honest with you, I really don’t care.”

Dooley previously requested the County Council to resubmit the $120 million bond issue in April to voters.

Prop I would have funded capital projects like a new family courts building, renovations to the county’s court building, construction of a new animal shelter and expansion of the county’s crime and health labs, according to county officials.

But Stenger believes the language in the proposed ordinance to place the bond issue on the April ballot was too ambiguous and would have essentially granted county officials with “a blank check.”

“The problem with the proposal is that there’s no guarantee that that’s how the money is going to be spent,” Stenger said. “I just don’t think we can issue a blank check and hope that it goes that way because it doesn’t have to by the terms of the (proposed) ordinance … There’s nothing that says how that money is going to be spent. And the last thing that I want to see is that we’re stretching interest payments and debt-service payments over time into the future for undesignated projects.

“Do we need our county buildings fixed? We might. But in this economic time … I just don’t see eye to eye with that.”

Stenger said his opposition to the bond issue was necessary, especially after considering south county voters’ unfavorable opinion of Prop I in November.

“I looked at what our district thought of it,” Stenger said. “And the 6th District came out at roughly close to 40 percent for and 60 percent opposed. And the initiative needs 58 percent to pass. So as far as I’m concerned, my voters have spoken …

“It’s almost like a situation where you look at someone who’s going to have their final payment due on their home in some months. Do they go out and refinance the debt all over again? And in a rough economic time? ‘No’ would be the answer. And that’s what they’re doing in the county. It doesn’t make any sense to do that.”

Stenger said his opposition to the bond issue is a trend that south county voters should come to expect in his next four years on the council. The Affton attorney unseated two-term former Republican County Councilman John Campisi in the November election.

“My votes will be consistent with what I believe is in our citizens’ best interest,” Stenger said. “And it will be very much with heavy weight toward being a taxpayer watchdog. That’s what they voted me in for, I believe, and that’s what they’re going to get.”