Final OK of measure to place use tax on Nov. 4 ballot to be eyed by County Council

Final approval of legislation to place a countywide 1.85-percent use tax on the Nov. 4 ballot was scheduled to be considered this week by the County Council.

The County Council was set to meet Tuesday evening — after the Call went to press.

The County Council voted 4-3 last week in a party-line vote to give initial approval to the measure with the council’s four Democrats voting “yes” and three Republicans voting “no.”

Democrats in favor of the legislation to place the countywide use tax before voters were 2nd District Council Chair Kathleen Burkett of Overland, 1st District Councilwoman Hazel Erby of University City and 5th District Councilwoman Barbara Fraser of University City.

Republicans opposed to the measure were 6th District Councilman John Campisi of south county, 3rd District Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger of Town and Country and 7th District Councilman Greg Quinn of Ballwin.

A court order would be required to place the use tax on the Nov. 4 ballot because the certification deadline for propositions was Aug. 26. If approved by the council and placed on the ballot, the use-tax proposal would join two other measures placed on the ballot by the County Council — a half-cent sales-tax increase for MetroLink light-rail expansion and operations and a $120 million no-tax-rate-increase bond issue to fund a variety of capital-improvement projects recommended by the county’s Blue Ribbon Commission.

The 1.85-percent use tax would tax out-of-state purchases of more than $2,000.

The county would use $15 million of that revenue to support $150 million in certificates of participation for public safety and job creation. The use tax would go toward funding a new county police communications system that would increase interoperability with other police departments.

The use tax also was recommended by the Blue Ribbon Commission —a group of regional business, political and civic leaders appointed earlier this year by County Executive Charlie Dooley. However, the commission had recommended the use-tax proposal be placed on the April ballot — not November.

But in an Aug. 15 letter sent to Dooley, the president of the St. Louis County Municipal League — University City Mayor Joseph L. Adams — urged the County Council to place the use tax on the November ballot to address various issues of public safety, particularly an integrated communications system.

“… Our first priority for the use tax is to establish an integrated communication system, which has been a major concern of the league membership since the 1990s …,” he wrote, citing an inability of many first responders to communicate with each other in emergency situations.

In an Aug. 19 letter to the County Council, Dooley wrote that he agreed with the Municipal League’s recommendation.

“The use tax is a vital source of revenue for St. Louis County government and for county municipalities,” he wrote. “These funds can be used for much-needed public-safety purposes, parks, job creation and enhancement of local government services. Equally important is the fact that the use tax gives local retailers a level playing field with out-of-state members.

“I concur with the Municipal League’s recommendation to allow St. Louis County residents to vote on this important issue,” Dooley stated in his letter. “It is my recommendation that the St. Louis County Council take the necessary legislative action to submit the local use tax to the voters this November.”

Previous use-tax proposals for St. Louis County have been unsuccessful.

In August 1996, county voters rejected a 1.75-percent countywide use tax with nearly 62 percent of those voting opposed to the proposal.

County voters in April 2001 defeated a 1.85-percent countywide use tax with 81,009 voters opposed and 58,634 in favor.

Half the proceeds of the use tax would have gone to municipalities and unincorporated areas in a sales-tax-sharing pool.

The other half would have gone to a proposed Community Comeback Trust Fund to pay for economic development projects in older, less-affluent areas.

For November, the County Council was divided over placing the MetroLink sales-tax proposal before voters while council members voted unanimously to place the $120 million bond issue on the ballot.

The County Council voted 4-2 with a party-line vote to place Proposition M on the ballot with Campisi and Quinn opposed. Wasinger was absent Aug. 7.

Prop M would raise an estimated $80 million a year for operation of Metro’s bus system and MetroLink and also expansion of the light-rail line to Westport and Florissant. As proposed, MetroLink light-rail would be expanded to Westport and Florissant, but south county will remain off the rail’s path.

Because south county will not receive MetroLink service, Campisi opposes the measure.

Capital projects to be funded by the bond issue include 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.

The bond issue would not increase the county’s tax rate, but would lengthen the time that county residents pay property tax to retire that debt’s interest and principal for those capital projects.

Because of the need for improvements to courts buildings and an expansion of the County Police Department’s crime lab as well as the fact that the bond issue would not raise residents’ tax rate, Campisi supports asking voters to approve it.