South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

Dooley, Corrigan square off at Lemay chamber forum

County executive candidates offer differing views on state of St. Louis County’s economy.

County Executive Charlie Dooley and his challenger for the office, lawyer Bill Corrigan, were among the candidates to face each other for the first time at a forum last week in Lemay.

Dooley, the Democratic incumbent, and Corrigan, the Republican nominee, outlined their campaign platforms and fielded questions on taxes during the Sept. 8 forum, which was sponsored by the Lemay Chamber of Commerce at Orlando Gardens.

Dooley is running for his second, four-year term as the county’s chief executive. Corrigan hopes to unseat him in the Nov. 2 election.

In an opening statement, Corrigan described his early years and the leadership posts he’s held. He told the audience his campaign is about economic revitalization, tax reform and ethics reform.

He vowed to create jobs and an “atmosphere of entrepreneurship” in the county if elected. The county has lost thousands of jobs on Dooley’s watch, Corrigan contended.

Corrigan called the county’s business incubator program “broken” and said he would fix it by providing “support and mentorship for small businesses.”

He said the current county property assessment system is “unfair” and that his administration would implement a moratorium on increases in property taxes — which he contended have jumped 30 percent over the last four years.

Corrigan lauded voters’ recent decision to make the county assessor an elective office.

“We led on the announcing of the election of the assessor, and the people of this county agreed with us,” he said. “We’re going to have an assessor that’s accountable to the people.”

Corrigan touted a code of ethics that would be implemented for his administration if he’s elected. He and his campaign crafted the document about a year ago using other codes from around the country, Corrigan said.

The code includes such provisions as requiring county employees to participate in training on the Missouri Open Meetings and Records Law and prohibiting solicitation of campaign contributions to county elected officials from county employees.

Corrigan accused the Dooley administration of several ethical transgressions, including soliciting campaign contributions from staff members equivalent to 1 percent of their salaries, awarding multimillion-dollar no-bid contracts to campaign contributors and conducting polling with taxpayer dollars.

Dooley in his opening remarks disputed Corrigan’s claims about the county’s economy. Passing up the microphone and podium to deliver his address only a couple of feet away from Corrigan, the county executive said, “St. Louis County is not and will not be broken with Charlie Dooley. Period. It’s not broken. It is the economic engine of this state and this region. Without St. Louis County, this state is nothing.”

He lauded the county’s AAA bond rating and its fully accredited economic council, health department, jail and the “best doggone Police Department in this state.”

“My friends, that is true leadership,” Dooley said.

Dooley told the crowd the county’s property tax rate did not increase this year, remaining at 52.3 cents per $100 in assessed valuation compared to 58 cents per $100 of assessed valuation when he took office in 2003.

He pointed to the renovation of Interstate 64 and the successful passage in April of a half-cent sales-tax increase for the Metro transit agency as examples of the county’s accomplishments under his leadership.

“Let’s talk about infrastructure and jobs. There is no major metropolitan area in this country — in this world — without public transportation, friends,” Dooley said. “If you think so, you’re wrong. You’ve got to have it to get people to goods and services. It made sense that this county did it.”

Dooley did not respond to Corrigan’s criticisms of his administration regarding ethics.

Late last month, however, Dooley unveiled his own code of ethics for county employees. Dooley’s code prohibits county employees from accepting gifts or services from “any person in connection with such employee’s official duties” with county government. It also calls for “an immediate and thorough review” of, and improvements to, the county’s contracting processes by July 2011.

The county executive last month also released the last four years of his tax returns. He has called on Corrigan to do the same.

Later on at last week’s forum, audience members asked Dooley and Corrigan whether they thought property taxes were too high and if they would pledge not to raise them.

Dooley asked the audience if their property tax bills were higher even though their assessments decreased.

When some replied they were, in fact, paying more, Dooley said, “Your tax rate has nothing to do with your assessment. It is the tax rate that dictates what it’s going to be. I’m going to say it again, because my opponent doesn’t understand that. First of all, you cannot put a moratorium on something you have no control over.”

He pointed out that the county receives only about six and a half cents of every dollar in property tax revenue. The bulk of the money goes to public schools and fire districts, he said.

“My friends that is the biggest bargain in town,” he said. “You can’t get a government anywhere that cheap and more efficient.”

As for whether he would pledge not to raise taxes, the county executive said, “I support investment in ourselves. Did I support the Metro (tax)? Heck yes I supported Metro. It made sense. Folks, when you don’t invest in yourselves, guess what? Businesses won’t invest in you.”

Corrigan said he would not raise taxes and pointed out that Dooley in November 2007 “as we’re about to enter the greatest recession our country has seen since the Depression” proposed recovering two cents per $100 of assessed valuation — which was rolled back in 2005 — on the county’s property tax rate. The County Council rejected the proposal.

He added that Dooley was “absolutely wrong about the tax rate. The county controls a portion of the tax rate and gets a third of its general revenue budget from the taxes, the real estate taxes. So the county does control a portion of the tax rate, although most of your taxes are paid to the school districts.”

Candidates for two state House seats also participated in last week’s forum. In District 96, Democrat Scott Sifton and Republican Anthony “Tony” Leech are vying for the seat held by Rep. Pat Yaeger, D-Lemay, who cannot run again because of term limits.

In District 85, Republican Cloria Brown is challenging incumbent Rep. Vicki Englund, D-Concord, who is running for her second, two-year term. Brown unsuccessfully ran against Englund in 2008.

Leech in his opening statement said he would not vote for any tax increases and supports reducing government and making it more accountable for the dollars it spends.

“In our own homes and small businesses, if you need to buy something, you save up and budget for it,” Leech said. “You just don’t go out and keep borrowing or printing money to make it happen.”

The state must “look at all departments” when trying to balance its budget in a rough economy, he said.

“There are no sacrosanct departments or safe havens for these departments,” Leech said. “We need to get out there and make government accountable to the residents.

“The function of government is not to create government jobs. Government is to govern the people and maintain an order. We need to create an environment that makes it more business friendly. We need to be able to get out there and help industry, create those manufacturing jobs and create those skilled jobs in the private sector.”

Education is important, but schools that are failing should be addressed, Leech said.

“If teachers can’t teach, they need to be replaced. Tenure is something that needs to be looked at,” Leech said. “Ad-ministration in the school districts probably could use some trimming.”

Sifton, a former Affton school board president, called K-12 education the “key to future economic development and job growth.”

“If we don’t train the work force that we need to compete in the 21st century, we will not be able to grow our businesses to create new jobs or to attract other businesses to our region,” Sifton said in his opening statement.

Brown echoed Leech’s comments about the economy. Missouri must “create an environment that allows small businesses to start up and grow,” she said in her opening remarks, adding that it could be done by having an educated workforce, no tax increases and the elimination of “bureaucratic red tape.”

“When you have a large bureaucracy, there is always waste,” Brown said, “and there are ways to find it.”

Englund said the job market definitely is her constituents’ top concern.

While the Legislature has been able to balance the state budget the past two years without asking for a tax increase, Englund said she and her colleagues likely will need to “make tough decisions” in the future as revenue continues to decline.

The audience asked the state House candidates what they would do to attract and retain small businesses in Missouri.

Leech said the government must “reduce and ease” its regulations on businesses.

“‘Profit’ is not a dirty word. Businesses need profits to grow,” he said. “We need to make it more user-friendly for these small businesses, and that’s it.”

Sifton noted the state already is helping small businesses by offering low-interest loans to those who can’t get credit, a program he wants to see expanded so more businesses qualify. Last year, the state also eliminated the franchise tax for some 16,000 small businesses, Sifton said.

Brown said, “The reason I’m hearing that business isn’t expanding is people are afraid. They’re afraid of the economy. They’re not sure what’s going to happen. They don’t want to spend their money until they know what they’re going to be doing.”

One solution won’t work for all small businesses, Englund said. Therefore, “what we can do as legislators is listen, listen to what you have to tell us,” she said.

“I can tell you that what some legislators like to do is sit in Jefferson City, come up with some great solution then go ‘Maybe there’s a problem this solution goes to.’ I like to work the other way.”

The candidates also were asked if they, too, would pledge not to raise taxes. Both Leech and Brown said they have signed pledges promising not to do so.

Sifton predicted the state would be able to balance its budget without asking for a tax increase “for the foreseeable future,” but “that’s going to mean some more painful cuts. We’re just going to have to tighten our belt and deal with it.”

He said he supports the Missouri Constitution’s Hancock Amendment, which requires tax increases be put to a vote.

Englund said Missouri needs to “focus on spending the money we have more wisely.”

“If we don’t do a better job taking care of the money you send us, it’s not going to matter how much we have,” she said.

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