Stenger proposes half-cent sales tax for law enforcement

Tax would provide funds for police departments in south county

Steve Stenger

Steve Stenger

By Gloria Lloyd

St. Louis County voters could weigh a sales tax in April that would raise $80 million a year to fund law enforcement in the county and its cities, pending final approval by the County Council next week.

County Executive Steve Stenger is asking the council to approve the half-cent sales tax, which is also supported by county police Chief Jon Belmar.

With the county’s roughly $40 million half of the sales tax, the St. Louis County Police Department would add officers, increase salaries, expand officer training, and add technology and equipment that are the mark of a modern police force, including body cameras and dash cams.

Making the case for the proposed tax to council members last week, Belmar noted that $90 million of the department’s $103 million budget goes to salaries, which are lagging behind other departments. That makes recruitment difficult during an already-rough atmosphere for law enforcement.

“We feel this is important for the safety of St. Louis County,” Belmar said.

Besides the county Police Department, the funds would benefit the Crestwood and Sunset Hills police departments, along with every other department in the county.

Roughly half the funds from the tax would be divided among county municipalities’ police departments, with more going to larger cities. In the last year, the council has enacted countywide police standards that mandate certain training and equipment for every department.

As starting salaries for county police have been increased in the last few years, pay for existing officers has fallen behind. In some cases, veteran officers say they barely make more than the new recruits they’re training.

Pay disparity is one of the many areas of public safety and law enforcement on which cities would be able to spend their part of the tax. The county will not define how the cities spend the money, only that the money has to go to public safety, Belmar said.

For the last two years, county officials have unsuccessfully lobbied the Legislature to allow St. Louis County to enact a quarter-cent sales tax for law enforcement, although cities would not have gotten any of the funding under that plan.

Stenger told the Call that he realized soon after he took office as 6th District councilman that the Police Department needed more money when he collaborated with an organization to collect money for the department, and police asked for basics like ballistic plates and ballistic vests.

“When you think about it, we have human beings that are in those vests,” Stenger said. “And to think that something so basic was difficult to afford within the county budget made me very, very much aware of the need for a sophisticated revenue stream for law enforcement.”

In the Nov. 8 election, county voters narrowly rejected a 5-cent property tax-rate increase for senior services.

Voters in the county appear more likely to approve sales taxes, such as the 2013 “Arch tax” that is paying for Arch improvements and parks. The existing sales tax in unincorporated areas is roughly 7.13 percent, while some municipalities are creeping past 10 percent, especially since tax incentives for redevelopment projects typically include sales-tax incentives to fund the improvements.

Sales taxes at the future redeveloped Crestwood Plaza could climb over 11 percent if voters approve the police tax.

To Stenger, a higher price at the cash register is a fair tradeoff for safer streets. Crime is going up, and south county is not immune, he told the Call.

“I think this is a tax that really stands above all others, because it provides a direct benefit to all of us — it fortifies the county, and it fortifies south county,” he said.

The one thing the two taxes have in common is that voters will get to decide for themselves whether they want them, Stenger said.

“This isn’t a tax that St. Louis County is pushing upon anyone,” Stenger said. “We want people to decide whether they want this tax or not. I greatly respect the will of the people, and I will respect the will of the people regardless of what they decide.”

As for what would be in it for south county voters, Belmar told the Call, “I think it does nothing but add to and enhance the public safety down there.”

In one example of where improvements can be made if voters approve the sales tax, Belmar hopes to convert to two-man cars instead of a single officer in a car, which the county has historically used.

Among the specific south county service expansions he would look to implement if the tax is approved, Belmar said with two-man cars along the Telegraph Road corridor in Oakville, in Lemay and by South County Center, other officers in the South County Precinct would be freed up to more quickly respond to non-emergency calls.

Right now, police have to triage calls for service, which means responding to routine calls can be slower when things are busy. If the tax does not pass, county police will still do their job, Belmar said. In many ways, the Police Department has been a victim of its own success, doing a lot with a little as taxpayers remain unaware that any area is underfunded, he added.

“We will do our job regardless of what resources we have or not,” the chief told the Call.

The announcement of the sales tax came just a few weeks after the Metro St. Louis Municipal League, an organization of mayors and city officials from county cities, voted to enter talks with the city of St. Louis to possibly re-enter the county as a municipality. Municipal League Executive Director Pat Kelly said the talks are necessary because the perception of the city’s crime rate is keeping down the regional economy, and city and county statistics could be combined if the city was in the county.

But the two announcements are not related, and Stenger does not support the city re-entering the county, he told the Call.

“I want to assure the people of south county that their county executive has no interest in bringing St. Louis city into St. Louis County as a municipality — no interest whatsoever,” Stenger said.

The many reasons why he opposes the idea include the city’s crime problems and the simple fact that the county can’t afford the city, he said.

“St. Louis County cannot afford that — that is not something we can ever afford,” Stenger said. “The only thing I can say is that I’m opposed.”