Dooley wants MetroLink tax hike off Feb. 5 ballot; officials look to future vote

Sullivan questions Baer’s appointment as Metro interim chief

By BURKE WASSON

While County Executive Charlie Dooley last week reversed course and wants a countywide half-cent sales tax to fund Metro-Link extensions and operations removed from the Feb. 5 ballot, county officials plan to place the measure on a future ballot.

County spokesman Mac Scott said Friday that county officials will first push to bring Metro’s finances into clearer focus before placing the half-cent sales tax back on the ballot.

Dooley already has demanded that the transit agency provide a financial-status report by Dec. 31 and is also asking State Auditor Susan Montee to proceed with an audit of Metro’s finances.

And in light of a St. Louis County jury ordering Metro on Nov. 30 to pay $2.56 million to a group of four design firms that Metro had sued for $80 million and former Metro Chief Operating Officer Larry Salci agreeing to step down Dec. 6, Scott said the transit agency could use some time to restore its credibility.

Between Metro’s loss in court and Salci’s well-documented KTVI-TV appearance on Nov. 8 when he said of station reporter Elliott Davis — “He fits right into St. Louis. He’s a (bleeping) clown,” — Dooley said Salci and county officials mutually agreed that Salci should leave and be given a one-year severance of $250,000.

Largely because of those factors, Dooley and Scott believe that February would be too soon to ask voters to approve a tax-rate increase for Metro. Dooley planned to ask the County Council to vote Tuesday afternoon — after the Call went to press — to repeal the ordinance placing the measure on the ballot.

“What we’re trying to do is restore confidence in the transit agency with the voters out there,” Scott said. “Right now, we have a feeling that people aren’t all that confident that things are being run the right way.

“So that’s what we want to do. Before we put this thing on the ballot, we want to make sure that there’s full disclosure here about where they are, what they can do and what they need so that there’s no argument about their condition or potentially what this thing could do.”

While it is too early to say when the half-cent sales tax could make it back onto a county ballot, Scott anticipates that the proposal would be “very similar” to the Proposition M that voters were to decide Feb. 5. The half-cent tax would have generated more than $75 million per year to extend Metro’s light-rail line to Westport and Florissant and provide additional funds for maintenance.

“I would think they’d want something very similar to what they had proposed for February,” Scott said. “But again, there’s some questions out there that need to be answered. And before this thing gets moved ahead, the questions are going to be answered. Then we’ll have a better idea of what the heck it is we’ve got going.”

Metro also faces a request of $27 million in legal fees from attorneys representing the four firms the agency had sued.

The transit agency had sought more than $80 million from the Cross County Collaborative — Parsons Brinckerhoff, Jacobs Civil Inc., STV Inc. and Kwame Building Group — alleging they were responsible for delays and cost overruns on the Cross County MetroLink project.

In addition, Metro’s Board of Directors recently agreed to Salci’s one-year severance of $250,000 and a one-year severance of $136,500 to former general counsel M. Celeste Vossmeyer, who also resigned in December.

For the time being, Dooley has appointed retired United Van Lines head and former Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District Board of Trustees Chairman Robert Baer as Metro’s interim CEO for the next six months. Baer also served as the head of the Bi-State Development Agency, which is Metro’s formal title, in the 1970s.

Longtime Metro critic Tom Sullivan said Baer’s appointment is a potential conflict of interest because of his membership on the Stifel Financial Corp. board. Stifel is a parent firm of Stifel, Nicolaus & Co., which Metro has employed for financial services.

Sullivan said he also finds it puzzling that the same county officials who once supported Metro’s decision to not reveal financial records during its trial with the Cross County Collaborative now are digging to the bottom of the transit agency’s finances after Metro’s loss in court.

“I think the postponement of the tax hike was a very smart move,” Sullivan said. “I think appointing Bob Baer as the interim CEO was a very bad move.

“As far as fiscal responsibility, we’ve been calling for that now for a couple of years. We still don’t know the whole story of the Cross County MetroLink project. And it’s been more than three years since we first heard of all the problems. And we still don’t know.”

Oakville resident Aaron Hilmer, a spokesman for Citizens Against Prop M, said while he also is pleased that Dooley is seeking the removal of the sales-tax proposal from the Feb. 5 ballot, he questioned what role the Metro Board of Directors has had in recent decisions about the agency.

“Where is Metro’s board?” he said. “Are they in the damage-control room waiting to see if they have to pay the CCC’s legal fees? And what’s really disturbing to south county residents is it’s clear that Mr. Dooley is running this whole show. He’s shown through his actions of either the trash districts or the tax increases that he doesn’t care for the view of the majority of south county voters.”

One south county group, the Oakville Township Republican Club, voted unanimously last week to adopt a resolution opposing Prop M.

Hilmer, who also serves as chairman of the Mehlville Fire Protection District’s Board of Directors, said he finds it ironic that county officials now are pushing for Metro to hand over financial records after being lenient on the issue in recent years.

“It’s frightening,” Hilmer said. “At what point does that light bulb come on? And if it took this long for it to come on, what else is going on in our $500 million county budget?

“What’s more striking to me is in the span of 35 days the majority of the County Council and County Executive Dooley go from wanting Prop M on the ballot to asking a judge to remove it from the ballot. In the real world if this is how you would act, you would be fired for that kind of incompetence. But this is what passes for county government.”

But while he is displeased with the majority of the County Council, Hilmer said Sixth District Councilman John Campisi, R-south county, as well as Seventh District Councilman Greg Quinn, R-Ballwin, should be commended for their votes last month against placing Prop M on the ballot.

Campisi has said that if Metro expansion does not come to his district, he sees no reason why he or south county residents should support the sales-tax increase.

“He (Campisi) was right on this issue from the beginning to the end,” Hilmer said. “He voted against it on Nov. 13, and I’m sure he’ll vote to take it off the ballot … and Quinn. So I think all residents should be thankful that we have Campisi there looking out for us.”