Lembke bill seeks to halt E-911 sales tax after five years

Mange believes Lembke’s bill ‘would kill the whole program’

By EVAN YOUNG

A state senator wants to cap the amount of time St. Louis County can collect a new, voter-approved sales tax and prevent the tax from ever being reinstated.

Sen. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay, pre-filed a bill Dec. 1 for the next legislative session that would halt collection of a 0.1-percent emergency communications sales tax five years after its Jan. 1 effective date.

Once the sales tax ends, the county would “be permanently barred from imposing or reauthorizing such tax,” according to the bill, which also calls for exempting food purchases from the tax.

Nearly 68 percent of county voters supported the sales tax, which appeared on the Nov 3 ballot as Proposition E-911. The tax, which will fund some $100 million in countywide emergency communications upgrades, passed with 92,919 “yes” votes and 44,291 “no” votes.

In Lembke’s Senate district — District 1 — the measure won with 64 percent of the vote in Concord Township, roughly 66 percent in Lemay Township, 59 percent in Oakville and 60 percent in Tesson Ferry Township.

“This is an effort from me to protect the taxpayers,” Lembke told the Call last week. “I don’t think that it was made clear to the taxpayers in the process of that campaign that this was a tax that goes on forever in perpetuity.”

Prop E-911 is expected to generate an ongoing revenue stream of roughly $16 million a year, or roughly $13 million a year if state lawmakers approve an exemption for food purchases. At 0.1 percent, an individual will pay 10 cents tax on a $100 purchase.

The tax will fund an $80 million countywide interoperable digital radio system that allows all police, firefighters, ambulance, public works personnel and other emergency service workers to communicate with each other at a disaster scene.

In addition, emergency responders will be able to meet a Federal Communications Commission requirement to narrow their frequency bands by the end of 2012.

The tax also will fund a $10 million upgrade to the county’s 28 emergency 911 answering centers.

New digital technology will provide emergency responders with the geographic location of all 911 calls made to the centers, including those made from cell phones.

Finally, taxpayers will fund an additional $10 million overhaul of the county’s emergency siren system.

The effort will repair 16 currently inoperable sirens, install new sirens in areas of north and west county and potentially upgrade other sirens to provide more localized alerts and voice commands.

Officials with the Emergency Communication System Commission, which will have sole control of the E-911 funds, have said they will issue 20-year certificates of participation, or COPs, to begin building the new system.

They also estimate they’ll need $4 million annually to maintain the new system once the infrastructure is in place.

But Lembke believes the county can generate $100 million from the sales tax in five years, and said any additional funding for the system shouldn’t come from taxpayers.

“Once you’ve got the thing paid for, the maintenance money should come out of your general revenue and not out of a continuing tax on the people,” Lembke said. “We don’t want taxes that were for a purpose to continue on, and for that to generate $13 (million) to $16 million a year for the county to use as they see fit.”

Asked if he believed he had enough support for his new bill, the senator said the “tone in Jefferson City is always the idea that taxes such as this should have a sunset.”

But the chairman of Prop E-911’s campaign committee fears the senator’s legislation would “kill the whole program.”

Former County Councilman Skip Mange said the county wouldn’t be able to generate enough revenue for the new communications system if the sales tax ended after five years.

Lembke’s legislation also would prevent the county from issuing COPs, he added.

“I don’t know where he thinks we’ll get the revenue, because the only way you can get that kind of revenue is through some sort of tax,” Mange said.

And once the county builds the infrastructure and retires the COPs, it still will need the ongoing revenue stream to replace first responders’ radios every 12 to 15 years and to generally operate the system, Mange said.

“You can’t just build it and not maintain it,” he said.

The Prop E-911 effort would be “dead in the water” if Lembke’s legislation passes, Mange said.

“We can’t move forward with it,” he said. “If you want to kill it, if you want to go against 60 percent of the people who voted in favor of it, then that’s what you’re doing. I can’t believe that he’s really trying to do this.”

The organizations that endorsed and “worked so hard” to pass Prop E-911 “are going to be out in force opposing this,” Mange added.

County Counselor Patricia Redington told the Call she wasn’t sure if Lembke’s legislation is legally feasible.

“We question, one, whether you can retroactively change it (the sales tax) after voters approve that, and then two, how you can say that the voters can be stopped from considering it again after five years,” she said last week. “I don’t see how that could be.”

But Lembke said he doesn’t contest the election, and that his bill wouldn’t prevent the county from asking voters to extend the sales tax later.

“It doesn’t thwart the will of the people,” Lembke said. “The will of the people still will take place.

“I’m just trying to protect those that I’m elected to serve, and the taxpayers, against those aspects of the way the bill was passed.”