Eighth-of-a-cent county parks sales tax to be considered by voters next Tuesday

St. Louis County voters will consider Proposition P — an eighth-of-a-cent sales tax increase to benefit county parks — Tuesday, April 6.

However, an anti-Proposition P campaign committee recently has formed, contending voters should reject the increase.

The passage of Proposition P will free up important revenues for other essential and critical county services, most notably the public safety department, County Council Chairman Skip Mange, R-Town and Country, stated in a news release.

In 2004, the general fund transferred $8.5 million into the parks fund to meet the operating needs of the countywide system, according to St. Louis County Parks and Recreation Department release.

“Park maintenance, operations and improvements should not have to compete with the Police Department, prosecuting attorney, justice administration and justice services for shrinking general fund revenues,” Mange stated in the release. “… The passage of Proposition P will eliminate our need for being continually dependent on the general fund to pay for our parks.”

Mange and County Executive Charlie Dooley are co-chairmen of Citizens for Quality Parks, a campaign committee formed to promote the passage of the sales tax increase.

In the release, Dooley stated, “The purpose of Proposition P is to ensure the continuation of a quality countywide park system by providing a dedicated funding source that will provide the operational resources for our parks for decades into the future.

“St. Louis County Parks serves all of the residents of our county with a wonderful system of parks, trails and recreational complexes and is regarded as one of the finest in the country. We must take the steps necessary to ensure that our residents continue to have the highest quality system possible available to them,” Dooley added.

Ongoing operations and maintenance of the regional park system would be funded by $9.5 million of funds generated by tax, according to the release, while $3 million a year would be used for enhancement projects such as pavilions, playgrounds, picnic facilities and trails throughout the county parks system. The remaining $4 million will be used to finance the annual payments on bonds that will be sold to construct the improvements outlined in the parks department’s master plans.

In the release, former Parks and Recreation Department Director Genie Zakrzewski noted that “even with the transfers from the general fund in 2003 and 2004 it was necessary to make reductions in parks’ personnel, hours of operation and programs, along with the deferral of maintenance and capital improvements. Without the new revenues that this ballot issue will provide, further reductions, including the possible closing of parks, may be necessary in 2005.”

But a campaign committee, No on Proposition P, also has been formed to oppose the sales tax, claiming that funding for the parks system should have been handled differently.

The committee was formed by the Coalition Against Public Funding for Stadiums and by Missourians for Tax Justice.

“The County Council had money available from the county hotel tax to support county parks, and then gave it away to the Cardinal owners for a new baseball stadium,” Fred Lindecke, spokesman for the Coalition Against Public Funding for Stadiums, stated in a No on Proposition P committee news release. “Now the council has the nerve to come back and ask for a tax increase to replace the money it gave away.”

The County Council appropriated $5 million in 2002 from hotel tax revenue to county parks, according to the release. In December, the council committed the hotel tax revenue to pay off a $45 million bond that was given to the Cardinal owners for a new ball park. Before county taxpayers are finished paying for these bonds in 2034, it will cost them $110 million, according to the release.

“The taxpayers are being nickeled and dimed to death with small sales tax increases, which have pushed the total sales tax rate to a level where it is a serious burden on low- and middle-income people who buy the consumer goods hit with the tax,” Lindecke stated in the release, claiming that, if passed, the increase would send the total sales tax rate in unincorporated areas of the county to 6.2 percent, and as high as 7.7 percent in some county municipalities.

A member of the No on Proposition P committee is accusing officials of withholding public documents that “could prove damaging” to the passage of Proposition P, according to a news release.

Tom Sullivan, longtime critic of St. Louis County government, recently filed two complaints with the Missouri Ethics Commission, alleging the county was using public resources to promote Proposition P.

Sullivan contends that the county, according to his statement, also is not providing information he has requested — specifically Dooley and Mange.

Sullivan specifically has requested and been denied, he claims, copies of minutes from a Feb. 20 Citizens for Quality Parks meeting. An e-mail provided to him by St. Louis County Police Chief Ron Battelle, reveals that minutes from the meeting exist, according to his statement.

He further contends the county’s lack of cooperation is in violation of the state’s Open Meetings and Records Law and is seeking assistance from the state’s Attorney General’s Office.

In a March 23 letter to Dooley, Sullivan wrote, “I have recently made requests for documents relating to Proposition P from various county departments. One of those requests was for documents from your office. None were provided. Yet documents I received from county departments indicate you would have received various correspondence on the tax proposal …”

He continued, “One particular request made of your office, unrelated to Propsition P, was ignored for a week and it took a second request for a response. It’s obvious that people in county government are dragging their feet in providing documents. It seems others don’t want to provide copies at all. Of course, this is a violation of the law.”

Sullivan spoke of the alleged Sunshine Law violations during a County Council meeting March 23, but county officials offered no response on the matter.