Legislation to place sales-tax hike before voters opposed by Stenger

Steve Stenger

Steve Stenger

By MIKE ANTHONY

Sixth District County Councilman Steve Stenger, D-south county, opposes a proposal to place a 0.1-percent sales tax on the November ballot to fund a countywide emergency communications system.

The County Council was scheduled to consider final approval of legislation to place the 0.1-percent sales tax on the Nov. 3 ballot when it met Tuesday night — after the Call went to press.

The legislation is sponsored by 1st District Council Chair Hazel Erby, D-University City; 2nd District Councilwoman Kathleen Burkett, D-Overland; Fourth District Councilman Mike O’Mara, D-north county; and 5th District Council Vice Chair Barbara Fraser, D-University City.

When the measure came up for initial approval May 5, Stenger and 7th District County Councilman Greg Quinn, R-Ballwin, cast “no” votes.

Stenger told the Call May 7 that he also planned to vote “no” when the legislation came up for final passage on Tuesday.

“I’ll be voting ‘no’ on it … We’re in a time right now where people are struggling to make it and I just don’t think that it’s the time to raise taxes. I just don’t think it’s a good idea,” he said.

The proposed sales tax would generate $13.6 million annually, according to the St. Louis County Emergency Communications Commission, which requested the measure be placed before voters.

As proposed, the sales tax would fund an $80 million countywide emergency communications system. The interoperable system would allow all police, firefighters, ambulance, public works personnel and other emergency service workers to communicate with each other at a disaster scene.

In addition, the new countywide communications system would allow emergency responders to meet a Federal Communications Commission requirement to narrow their frequencies by the end of 2012.

Though the proposed sales tax is 0.1 percent, Stenger said, “… While it may not seem like it’s going to make a major impact, the more we pile on and pile on to our sales tax, obviously it increases it every time and I’m sure this will not be the only time that measure will be proposed to raise the tax further. So why raise it at all?”

The councilman noted that Pinnacle’s River City Casino in Lemay is expected to open early next year.

“We’ve got a casino that’s going to be coming online in January here and that casino money is going to generate about $13 million to the county coffers,” he said. “So why not use that $13 million rather than raise sales taxes further?

“That $13 million that’s going to be coming in January isn’t there now. That’s going to be an increase … We’re operating on the budget we’re operating on right now and we’re soon to have another $13 million. And there really isn’t anything that’s going to stop the county from using these funds for anything else …”

Another alternative to a sales-tax increase to fund the countywide emergency communications system would be seeking federal stimulus funds, according to the councilman.

“There’s ways to raise this revenue without raising taxes,” he said. “I have a great way. How about the stimulus plan? Why not apply for some stimulus money for this? If not the casino (revenue), why not stimulus money? Why does it have to be the St. Louis County taxpayer economic stimulus plan? That just doesn’t sound right to me.”

While Stenger opposes placing the sales tax on the ballot, he believes having an interoperable communications is extremely important.

“I think that interoperability is important. I think that having communication between all of the first responders is extremely important,” he said. “But it’s how we fund it. You can take a good idea and you can have a good idea, but the funding is a whole different story. There are a lot of great ideas out there. Some great ideas we just don’t fund. And others we fund and we fund them in ways that don’t necessarily hit right into the taxpayers’ pockets.

“We’re in a time where people have lost faith in their government at all levels and part of the reason why they’ve lost faith in their government at all levels is because there just seems to be a never-ending desire to raise taxes or to tax people further,” Stenger said. “And I think this is the time if we’re going to earn the faith of our constituents, how better to do that than to show our constituents that we as the legislative branch, as county government, we can actually tighten our belts, too. Let’s set the example for everybody. Let’s live as our constituents are living — within our means.

“And if we do have an idea or a project that has to be done, let’s think creatively and out of the box. Why not make it stimulus money? There’s not really an end to this tax in sight and the interoperability requires multimillions to fund every year. So this is just not a one-time splash. So it concerns me.”

Voters last November rejected Proposi-tion H, a countywide 1.85-percent use tax on all out-of-state purchases of more than $2,000.

Referring to the defeat of Proposition H, Stenger said, “I don’t think that it was simply the concept of a use tax that they (voters) didn’t like either.

“I think this (a sales-tax increase) is even more direct than a use tax …”

Another alternative would be to delay the communications system until the county can afford it — not unlike what many taxpayers are doing today.

“… Let’s do it later if we can’t afford it right now … We’ve got two potential funding sources …,” he said, referring to the casino revenue and federal stimulus funds.

“… I just think that in representing the people of south county, I don’t think the people of south county want their taxes raised,” Stenger said. “I think the people of south county would like their representative to think out of the box a little bit and maybe think of other ways to fund a system like that.

“Funding it through the economic stimulus plan would be a great idea if it could be done. It would be a great idea because it does put people to work,” he said. “It will put the people who build towers to work. It will put electricians to work. It’s going to put many of the trades to work, which is great, but why does it have to be on the back of St. Louis County? If the federal government already has an economic stimulus plan going, why wouldn’t we do it through that?”

The councilman believes that having a countywide emergency communications system is necessary.

“I think we need it. We do need it. And if it’s that important, let’s put our heads to-gether and figure out a better way to fund it than a sales tax,” he said.