Prop N OK’d by county voters; smoking ban effective in 2011

County voters approve new sales tax for emergency communications system

By EVAN YOUNG

Casino floors and small bars still will be smoky when the Indoor Clean Air Code county voters approved last week goes into effect a little more than a year from now.

But one of the county councilmen who supported those exemptions says that, with some economic growth, the smoking ban could one day broaden.

Roughly 65 percent of voters approved Proposition N on Nov. 3. The measure, which sought to ban smoking in most public places, received 89,701 “yes” votes and 47,585 “no” votes, according to unofficial election results.

When it goes into effect Jan. 2, 2011, the smoking ban will prohibit lighting up in enclosed public places but will exclude casino floors, bars where food makes up no more than 25 percent of gross sales, Lambert-St. Louis International Airport’s smoking lounges, private residences, private nursing-home rooms, private clubs, cigar bars and performers who smoke on stage as part of a production.

The ban also triggers a similar smoke-free ordinance in St. Louis city.

And while voter turnout this Election Day came in at slightly less than 20 percent, 6th District Councilman Steve Stenger, D-south county, believes those residents who did show up at the polls made it clear that they want clean air. Stenger was one of four councilmen who approved placing Prop N on last week’s ballot. The corresponding legislation was sponsored by 5th District Councilman Barbara Fraser, D-University City.

Stenger voted against a previous version of Fraser’s smoking-ban ordinance, which contained no significant exemptions, because he was concerned about the economic impact a comprehensive ban may have had on the county and in his district — namely the effect on south county’s small bars and Pinnacle’s forthcoming River City Casino in Lemay. However, Stenger told the Call last week Prop N’s exemptions could be phased out if the county’s economic outlook eventually brightens.

“We’re probably moving toward a time when those exemptions could be removed at some point,” Stenger said. “I think it’s important to see what the economics of the situation are in 2011, and we have to see what’s enacted in other jurisdictions. Because the goal of it was we just were trying not to damage the businesses in St. Louis County. We’re just trying to be careful and cautious.”

Stenger said Prop N’s passage was an “enormous step forward” and that the ordinance could be expanded “incrementally.”

“We now have a smoking ban that covers approximately 95 percent of the structures in the county. We can improve on that, and if that’s the direction the public wants the council to take — and I can’t speak for my other councilmembers — but I just have a sense that in the future that’s probably where this issue is heading.”

Bars that wish to be excluded from the smoking ban must have opened for business on or before the ban’s effective date; apply for a “certificate of exemption” with the Department of Revenue; and pay a $35 application fee.

Once given exemption status, bar owners have 100 days to submit to the DOR “a signed and notarized statement … identifying the actual gross revenue and liquor sales for the previous 90 days of operation.” Further, bar owners must place their DOR exemption certificate “in a place visible to the public from its exterior.”

Those caught smoking in non-exempt places will be fined $50 for each offense, according to the ordinance.

Businesses found in violation of the ordinance will be fined $100 for the first offense, $200 for a second violation within one year and $500 for each subsequent violation within one year.

County voters also voiced their support for a new, 0.1-percent sales tax that will fund $100 million in countywide emergency communications improvements. Roughly 68 percent of voters supported Proposition E-911; the measure received 92,919 “yes” votes and 44,291 “no” votes.

The new sales 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 county now joins St. Louis city, Jefferson County and St. Charles County, which have similar systems in place.

The sales 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, in-stall new sirens in areas of north and west county and potentially upgrade other sirens to provide more localized alerts and voice commands.

The new sales tax — which has no sunset date — is expected to generate an ongoing revenue stream of roughly $16 million a year, according to the county’s Emergency Communications System Commission, or ECSC, which requested the ballot measure.

At 0.1 percent, an individual will pay 10 cents tax on a $100 purchase.

The tax doesn’t exempt food or medicine purchases. However, if Missouri lawmakers pass legislation next year calling for those sales-tax exemptions, the emergency communications sales tax’s annual revenue would decrease to $13.6 million from $16 million.

The ECSC will have sole control of monies generated from the tax but will be required to request an annual appropriation of those funds from the County Council.

ECSC officials have said they likely will issue $100 million in certificates of participation, or COPs, to obtain upfront funding to begin building the new communication infrastructure, which is expected to be in place by 2012.

Those COPs would be retired in 20 years, but the county will need the ongoing revenue stream to maintain the new system and keep the technology up-to-date. However, the ECSC has estimated it would only need $4 million of the $16 million annual tax revenue for maintenance once the system is constructed.

Former County Councilman Skip Mange, who chaired the Citizens in Support of E-911 committee, was pleased with the 2-to-1 margin by which Prop E-911 passed.

“It was gratifying to see the residents and voters of St. Louis County understand the importance of having an effective emergency communications system with our first responders, and particularly how important it is to accurately locate cell phones through our 911 system, which I think is a very critical issue in front of St. Louis County,” Mange said last week.

A year ago, more than 55 percent of county voters rejected Proposition H, a proposed 1.85-percent use tax on all out-of-state purchases of more than $2,000, part of which would’ve funded public safety upgrades.

But Mange said the key to E-911’s success was a combination of his committee’s direct mail and radio campaigns, as well as the “grassroots efforts that were put out there by the elected officials, the fire chiefs and the police chiefs throughout all of St. Louis County.”

A number of well-known county officials and organizations endorsed the ballot measure in the weeks leading up to the election, including Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch, county Police Chief Tim Fitch, the Metro transit agency, the St. Louis County Police Commission, the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council of Governments, Fire Fighters Local 2665, the Missouri Department of Public Safety and the St. Louis County Municipal League.

While the infrastructure for the new communications system won’t be ready until 2012, Mange said residents can expect 911 center upgrades as soon as mid- to late-2010, when the ECSC begins receiving E-911 tax receipts.

“The centers are there, it’s just getting the necessary equipment in there to recognize coordinates and getting the mapping up so they can see it on a map,” he said. “That’s the first thing people should see, and that’s the issue that resonated most with voters.”