Stenger reiterates his opposition to county sales-tax proposal

By EVAN YOUNG

Despite his colleagues’ effort to promote voter education on the issue, 6th District Councilman Steve Stenger, D-south county, recently reiterated his opposition to an upcoming county sales-tax ballot proposal.

The St. Louis County Municipal League wants area governmental bodies — including the County Council — to adopt a non-advocacy resolution urging voters to familiarize themselves with a Nov. 3 proposition requesting a 0.1-cent sales tax to fund $100 million in emergency communications improvements.

Five councilmen were expected to co-sponsor that resolution earlier this week, but Stenger, along with 7th District Councilman Greg Quinn, R-Ballwin, aren’t among them.

The five co-sponsors — 1st District Council Chair Hazel Erby, D-University City; 2nd District Councilman Kathleen Burkett, D-Overland; 3rd District Councilman Colleen Wasinger, R-Town and Country; 4th District Councilman Mike O’Mara, D-north county; and 5th District Council Vice Chair Barbara Fraser, D-University City — also co-sponsored the legislation that put the sales-tax proposal on the November ballot.

Stenger and Quinn neither sponsored nor supported the bill, which passed through the council in May.

“We don’t need to increase sales taxes or any other kind of tax,” Stenger told the Call last week.

As proposed to voters, 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.

Besides the interoperable system, the sales tax would fund a $10 million upgrade to the county’s 28 emergency 911 answering centers. New digital technology would provide emergency responders with the geographic location of all 911 calls made to the centers, including those made from cell phones.

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

The effort would 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.

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

At 0.1 cent, an individual would pay 10 cents tax on a $100 purchase.

As proposed, 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 would have sole control of monies generated from the tax, but would be required to request an annual appropriation of those funds from the County Council.

The commission chose to propose a sales tax, rather than a property tax or bond issue, because both county residents — property owners or otherwise — and visitors would pay the tax and benefit from the services it funds, according to officials with Citizens in Support of E-911, the proposition’s bipartisan campaign organization.

And while the ECSC isn’t asking for a bond issue to directly finance the improvements, it could seek to issue certificates of participation, or COPs, if voters approve the sales tax, to obtain up-front funding to begin the communication upgrades, said Skip Mange, former county councilman and the campaign organization’s chair.

“There is the possibility for St. Louis County to issue what are called COP bonds, where a portion of this revenue stream is dedicated to the pay off of those bonds …,” Mange told the Call during a recent interview. “Now, you don’t need $100 million in one shot. It’s not a bond issue as such, it’s a sales tax … But there is a possibility that you would dedicate a portion of this revenue stream for the next 10 to 15 years, whatever the market seems to say, to raise the big chunk of money you need to initially construct this.”

But Stenger is convinced alternative sources of funding are available for a new communications system — sources that don’t put an additional burden on county taxpayers, he said.

Besides Pinnacle’s River City Casino in Lemay — slated to open in January and generate an estimated $13 million in revenue a year — Stenger said the commission should seek stimulus funds or other federal aid, especially because the FCC is requiring narrower frequencies.

“They say we have to do this, but they don’t want to fund it or tell us how to fund it,” Stenger said of the FCC mandate. “They just leave it in our laps.”

However, Mange said one-time stimulus funds would be hard to obtain, and wouldn’t be enough to maintain all of the county’s proposed communications improvements.

“Any stimulus dollars we could get would be great, because that’s a dollar less that we’d have to spend ourselves,” Mange said.

“But the problem with getting stimulus money for this purpose is that it’s pretty far down the list. And the other thing is that … this really requires an ongoing revenue stream. A one-time shot won’t do it.”

Still, Stenger believes the county has overwhelmed its residents with tax-rate-increase proposals lately, referencing propositions on recent ballots and a possible half-cent transportation sales tax proposal that could go on next April’s ballot.

More than 55 percent of county voters last November rejected Proposition H, a countywide 1.85-percent use tax on all out-of-state purchases of more than $2,000 for the purposes of “enhancing county and municipal public safety, parks and job creation and enhancing local government services,” — including a countywide emergency communications system.

The use-tax proposal received 279,274 — 55.4 percent — “no” votes and 224,868 — 44.6 percent — “yes” votes in the Nov. 4 election.