MetroLink tax hike off February ballot

Many unanswered questions remain, Quinn says of Metro

By BURKE WASSON

A week after County Executive Charlie Dooley proposed removing a half-cent sales tax for MetroLink expansion from the Feb. 5 ballot, the County Council unanimously followed through on that recommendation.

The council voted 7-0 Dec. 18 to repeal an ordinance placing Proposition M on the Feb. 5 ballot.

Prop M would have generated more than $75 million annually to fund light-rail expansions to Westport and Florissant and additional maintenance for all existing Metro operations in St. Louis County. Prop M also would have had a 20-year sunset.

County officials obtained a court order Dec. 19 removing the proposition from the ballot.

The County Council voted 5-2 on Nov. 13 to place the proposal on the ballot, with Sixth District Councilman John Campisi, R-south county, and Seventh District Councilman Greg Quinn, R-Ballwin, opposed.

But after a St. Louis County Circuit Court jury ordered 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 agreed to step down Dec. 6, county officials’ confidence in the transit agency was shaken.

For that reason, county officials now believe the transit agency needs more time to restore its credibility and February would be too soon to ask voters to approve a sales-tax increase for Metro. But county spokesman Mac Scott has said that Prop M likely will appear in some form on a future ballot.

Second District Vice Chair Kathleen Burkett, D-Overland, said last week that Metro’s viability and expansion are too “important” to not seek additional funding in the future.

“I have probably been the most vocal proponent of MetroLink being an elected official,” Burkett said. “I ride it every day to work. I understand the importance of mass transit to this area.

“And while I do agree that right now Metro needs to do a lot of accounting in their accountability and what has transpired in the past few years and I think that needs to be cleaned up.

“I certainly would like the citizens and taxpayers of this county to be aware that we need to go forward with mass transit. And hopefully, there’s some time in the future when we can address this issue again because it is extremely important for this area,” she said.

County officials first will 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 also is asking State Auditor Susan Montee to audit Metro’s finances.

Between Metro’s court loss and Salci’s well-documented KTVI-TV appearance on Nov. 8, when he was overheard saying the following 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 severance pay of $250,000 — one year of salary.

Largely because of those factors, Dooley and Scott believe that February would be too soon to ask voters to approve a tax increase for Metro.

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 on Feb. 5.

Metro also is faced with the request of $27 million in legal fees from attorneys representing the four firms Metro 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 2005, Gov. Matt Blunt ordered a state audit of the Cross County project. But that audit has never been completed. Metro representatives contend that state officials never have identified all Metro financial records to be presented for the audit.

In addition, Metro’s Board of Directors recently agreed to Salci’s severance pay of $250,000 and severance pay of $136,500 — one year’s salary — 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.

With the transit agency’s leadership and accountability still in flux, Quinn said last week that he supports Dooley’s recommendation to take Prop M off the Feb. 5 ballot.

At the same time, Quinn also said that many of the unanswered questions that pushed him to reject Prop M when it was first introduced in November still are on the table and would need to be addressed before any form of a Metro tax is brought back to the County Council.

“I still have some of the same concerns that I had when I voted not to put this on the ballot to begin with,” Quinn said.

“Metro lost the lawsuit, but we still don’t have any explanation about what happened to the $120 million or $150 million of cost overrun on that project. Was it the engineering firm? Was it Metro? … It seems to me before we can put this back on the ballot, we need to have answers to those questions.”

Campisi, who also voted against placing Prop M on the ballot, has said he sees no reason why voters in his district should support Prop M as the proposed light-rail expansions would not stretch to south county.

County Chief Operating Officer Garry Earls has said that if the Westport and Florissant extensions were to be completed, which he estimates would take five to seven years of construction, Metro officials then would target St. Charles County.

As recently as 2004, county officials were studying a $650 million, 11-mile railway extension into south county.

The extension would have run from Shrewsbury along the River De Peres to Butler Hill Road.

Besides that route, the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council studied four other possible south county extensions.

But all five of those options were shelved in late 2004.