Sunset Hills aldermen now looking to April for vote on park and stormwater sales tax

By BURKE WASSON

After originally considering a February election to have voters decide on a half-cent sales tax for park and stormwater improvements, Sunset Hills aldermen now are looking to April.

The Board of Aldermen was scheduled to consider Tuesday — after the Call went to press — the first reading of an ordinance calling for that sales-tax issue to be placed on the Tuesday, April 3, ballot.

As proposed, the additional half-cent sales tax would have a life of 20 years and would generate roughly $750,000 to $1 million annually for park and stormwater improvements.

Some of these improvements include stormwater upgrades to Tributary B near West Watson Road, the expansion of Minnie Ha Ha Park and a river walk alongside the Meramec River.

At the Board of Aldermen’s Nov. 14 meeting, aldermen voted 6-1 to switch the vote on the additional sales tax from February to April. Ward 1 Alderman Frank Hardy was the only alderman to vote against that change, and Ward 3 Alderman Jan Hoffmann was absent.

Mayor John Hunzeker also expressed skepticism toward placing the sales-tax issue on the April ballot as opposed to February. His reasoning is that some voters might be influenced by the aldermanic races in that same election and would therefore be more likely to vote against the proposal in April than in February — when there would be no other matters for voters to decide.

“My thought was you don’t want to put a tax issue on the ballot at the same time people are running for re-election,” Hunzeker said. “And that’s why it was in February. Now, the cost of having a tax increase in February may have been a consideration by some of the aldermen not thinking of the politics of running for re-election with a tax increase. If it were me, I would prefer not to be on the ballot at the same time with a tax increase. My political sense suggests that something suffers. If people are mad at the aldermen that are running for re-election, which they have every right to be given the fact that they are who they are, a tax increase would not be a good thing to be on there with them.”

Ward 1 Alderman Michael Sawicki, Ward 2 Alderman John Littlefield, Ward 4 Alderman Donald Parker and Hoffmann all have terms expiring in 2007 and could run in April for re-election.

The mayor also said he believes that with a traditionally lower number of voters turning out in February than April, the likelihood of people going to the polls simply to vote against a proposal would not be very high.

“February would have been a perfect time,” Hunzeker said. “Your turnout’s going to be low. And your core group of people that are in favor are the ones that are going to go to the polls. People aren’t going to get up in February and go vote a negative.”

Aldermen have recently taken steps toward already improving the city’s stormwater system. The board approved a $115,000 stormwater study on Nov. 14 that will help determine exactly where improvements are needed in the city. At the moment, Tributary B near West Watson Road and Tapawingo National Golf Course are two that have been identified as projects by city officials.

After previously estimating that more than 60 percent and possibly as much as 80 percent of the revenue from the proposed sales tax would go to park improvements, Hunzeker said those figures might change based on the results of the recently approved stormwater study.

“The study is being done, and it’s kind of difficult to figure out what will be the cost of the solutions that the study determines or identifies,” Hunzeker said. “So it’s difficult to figure out what the ratio of stormwater to park improvements is going to be.”

Besides the study, city officials are also continuing to look for grant funding through the state and the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District to make improvements to stormwater systems.

Despite any uncertainty with the pending results of the stormwater study, city officials are confident that the bulk of the funds from the proposed sales tax would go to park improvements. Those projects would range from capital improvements like making repairs to city swimming pools to expansion of parks like Minnie Ha Ha and the creation of trails near the Meramec River.

Hunzeker said that even if the proposed sales tax is placed on the April ballot, he is optimistic that voters would approve it.

If passed, the additional half-cent sales tax would bring Sunset Hills’ sales-tax level to parity with bordering cities like Crestwood, Fenton and Kirkwood, which is another reason why Hunzeker said he believes the proposal makes sense.

He also pointed out that proposing a sales-tax increase to make infrastructure and park improvements is a far better option that proposing a property-tax increase for the same functions.

Hunzeker’s reasoning is that non-residents who shop in Sunset Hills would still be paying that additional sales tax.

“It’s a sales-tax increase and not a property-tax increase,” Hunzeker said. “So presumably, the residents of Sunset Hills will not be bearing the cost of raising additional revenues for the parks system that they enjoy.

“Somehow, you’ve got to pay for municipal services. Some way, somehow, you have to pay for necessary and needed municipal services. And so the best way — absent knocking out neighborhoods and building shopping centers — is through a sales tax as opposed to a property-tax increase.”

As for the aldermen that approved legislation toward the Novus Development Co.’s now-failed MainStreet at Sunset shopping center at the site of the Sunset Manor subdivision, Hunzeker said he believes voters will remember the previous actions of those elected officials.

In May 2005, Sawicki, Littlefield, Hoffmann and Parker all helped approve Novus’ request for $42 million in tax-increment financing, or TIF, to help fund the $165.2 million shopping center. The pact with Novus also included $20 million in transportation development district, or TDD, reimbursements.

It is with that remembrance in mind that Hunzeker believes the proposed sales tax should be on the city’s February ballot.

“The four guys who are up this time are the guys who participated in the program to wipe out a neighborhood and build a shopping center,” Hunzeker said. “You know, maybe it’s just me. I thought it was a good deal not to put a tax increase on at the same time. But, again, why would these guys want a tax increase in with their re-election? I can only think that they wanted it to be on there because now it will be more difficult to create a negative vibe about their re-election at the same time we’re trying to get a positive vote on a tax issue.”