Sunset Hills aldermen to consider putting half-cent sales tax before city voters

Proposed 20-year sales tax would fund improvements to parks, stormwater system

By BURKE WASSON

To upgrade the city’s stormwater system and expand its parks, Sunset Hills officials are making plans to impose a half-cent sales tax for 20 years. But the final say on the sales tax would come from voters in a Feb. 6 election.

Aldermen are set to decide Tuesday, Nov. 14, whether to call for that February election that would place the sales-tax issue before residents.

Mayor John Hunzeker said that the proposed half-cent sales tax would generate from $750,000 to $1 million annually for parks and stormwater improvements.

Specifically, Hunzeker said the stormwater improvements would likely go to Tributary B near West Watson Road. As for parks, the funds would possibly be used for a river walk near the Meramec River as well as for other building improvements in Sunset Hills’ existing parks.

Of the estimated $750,000 to $1 million the proposed half-cent sales tax would generate annually, Hunzeker said more than 60 percent and possibly as much as 80 percent of those funds would go toward park improvements.

Noting that the half-cent sales tax would bring Sunset Hills’ sales-tax level to parity with such nearby cities as Crestwood, Fen-ton and Kirkwood, the mayor said he believes the proposed tax is necessary to repair any stormwater problems in the next 20 years and expand the city’s parks. For these reasons, he hopes Sunset Hills voters will feel the same way in February.

“This statute that the state passed, which allows municipalities to raise their sales tax to accommodate parks and stormwater, is a good thing,” Hunzeker said. “It allows municipalities to target specific uses of the proceeds from the fund. And in the case of Sunset Hills, it’s needed because of some of the stormwater issues over on West Watson. It’s needed because as a municipality, we are underparked. A city our size, both geographically and population-wise, should have over 200 acres in park land, and we’ve got right at 100. So we need to expand our park system and we need to address these stormwater issues. And by passing this sales-tax increase, we are merely bringing ourselves up to parity with our surrounding municipalities. So, the businesses in Sunset Hills will not be penalized by having too high a sales tax relative to our neighbors.”

The city has entered into a contract to study Tributary B near West Watson Road to specifically determine what projects would be needed for stormwater control upgrades. Besides the study of Tributary B, Hunzeker said city officials are continuing to look for grant funding through the state and the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District, or MSD, to make improvements to stormwater systems.

“It’s always good to have access to funds, but there’s also MSD and the state of Missouri and a lot of grants and things out there,” Hunzeker said. “Certainly, they could come into play as well in addition to funds generated by the half-cent sales tax, which obviously would reduce the reliance on the half-cent sales tax for stormwater.

“Since we don’t know what the heck we have to do with Tributary B and we haven’t completed the study, you know, it’s kind of hard to apply. And until you know the plan improvements that are required, it’s hard to determine their costs.”

Besides West Watson Road, the mayor said city officials would look throughout the city’s boundaries for other stormwater projects as they arrive.

“There are a number of areas that I think bear looking at,” Hunzeker said. “But I think when we get the study back, it’s going to be pointing us in the next direction. Once we take a look at Tributary B, I think there’s some water runoff problems over at Tapawingo (National Golf Course) that may have to get addressed.”

The bulk of the funds from the proposed half-cent sales tax would go to park improvements that would range anywhere from making swimming-pool repairs to developing a trail along the Meramec River. Hunzeker also said the expansion of Minnie Ha Ha Park would be closely studied.

One of the city’s departments that would be monitoring these projects in both parks and stormwater control is seeking a new head. After 11 years with Sunset Hills, City Engineer Ron Williams announced his resignation effective Nov. 26. Williams recently was hired as the city engineer of Columbia, Ill.

Three aldermen already have met to discuss the merits of numerous candidates who have applied for the city engineer position.

Those three aldermen on the city engineer search committee are Ward 1 Alderman Michael Sawicki, who is the chairman of the finance committee, Ward 3 Alderman Lynn Flowers, who is the chairman of the public works committee and Ward 4 Alderman Frank Gregory, who serves as the chairman of the personnel committee.

“I know that they’ve received a number of resumes so far,” Hunzeker said. “And they are winnowing that down to a manageable number, which will then be interviewed. And ultimately, there will be a recommendation coming out of the personnel committee. So I think it’s being approached in a very professional manner in terms of how the city is structured to deal with this sort of thing …”

The mayor also added that the new city engineer’s role within municipal government would be more narrowly defined than before and that the city would not shy away from using other professional services to consult in certain projects.

“… You know, the city benefited from Ron’s tenure. He’d been here for well over 11 years,” he said. “And people came to rely on him as the end-all, be-all, can-do guy. And he was certainly successful at that sort of thing. But I think it may have been a little unfair to tag him with all these sort of projects that he got involved in. And so I think you’ll see us using more and more outside professional services and the city engineer be more of a contract administrator, if you will, and less of a hands-on sort of guy.”

Other than searching for a new city engineer, Hunzeker said that pending aldermen’s approval for a Feb. 6 election, he would be focused on persuading residents to pass the additional half-cent sales tax for park expansion and stormwater improvements — which he affirmed would be accomplished if the tax is passed.

“Maybe it’s my political naiveté, but it seems like if you’re going to do something like this, you probably ought to use it,” Hunzeker said. “The residents of Sunset Hills, I think, are very informed voters.

“I think to get this half-cent sales tax passed is going to take a pretty hefty effort on behalf of the friends of Sunset Hills parks. I mean, they’re going to have to really convince the people that this is a good thing. I mean, this is a far better way to raise revenue for necessary municipal services than wiping out neighborhoods and building shopping centers. That’s addition by subtraction.”