Sunset Hills voters to consider sales-tax hike in April election

Half-cent tax would generate more than $750,000 a year for projects

By BURKE WASSON

Sunset Hills residents now will consider a half-cent sales tax for park and stormwater improvements in April — not February as originally proposed.

Aldermen recently voted 7-0 to place that sales-tax issue on the April 3 ballot. Ward 4 Alderman Donald Parker was absent from the Nov. 28 meeting.

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

Four aldermanic seats also will be up for election in April. Parker, Ward 1 Alderman Michael Sawicki, Ward 2 Alderman John Littlefield and Ward 3 Alderman Jan Hoffmann all have terms expiring. Filing for the Sunset Hills aldermanic races began Tuesday and will continue until 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 16.

Hoffmann, who told the Call last week that she will seek re-election, said she also would support the half-cent sales-tax measure in April.

“I think it’s a win-win for the city,” Hoffmann said. “I think it will be a great benefit to the city. And the nice thing is it’s not a direct tax on our residents. Of course, our residents shop here, too. But also, all of our neighbors already have that tax. So it’s not like people will avoid shopping in Sunset Hills to go for a lower tax rate.”

The ballot issue for a sales-tax increase will be more beneficial than asking for a property-tax hike because more than half the people who shop in Sunset Hills do not live in the city, according to Mayor John Hunzeker.

“A majority of the tax will be paid for by people other than residents,” he said. “And a hundred percent of the new revenue will not come from property taxes. So there’s some really compelling reasons.”

Hunzeker and Hoffmann both said that the additional half-cent sales tax would not penalize any shoppers in Sunset Hills because of the tax levels of nearby cities. If approved, the new sales tax would bring Sunset Hills’ sales-tax level to parity with bordering cities like Crestwood, Fenton and Kirkwood.

Some benefits from the additional half-cent sales tax would 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.

Aldermen recently have taken steps toward 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.

And 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.

While also waiting for conclusions from the approved 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.

Before placing the half-cent sales tax on the April ballot, aldermen originally wanted voters to decide in February. But to save money for the cost of an extra election, aldermen voted 6-1 on Nov. 14 to put the issue on the April ballot with the aldermanic races.

Ward 1 Alderman Frank Hardy was the only alderman to vote against that change, and Hunzeker has also said he would prefer having voters decide in February. His reasoning is that some voters might be influenced by the aldermanic races in April and would therefore be more likely to vote against the proposal in April than in February — when there would have been no other matters for voters to decide.

The mayor also has said 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 in February.

Besides looking to the April election, Hunzeker said he is studying the findings in the recently completed condition assessment of the Sunset Manor subdivision.

In May 2005, aldermen authorized the use of eminent domain to raze 254 homes at Sunset Manor to clear a path for the MainStreet at Sunset shopping center.

Aldermen also approved the Novus Development Co.’s request for $42 million in tax-increment financing, or TIF, to help fund the $165.2 million mall. The contract also included $20 million in transportation development district, or TDD, reimbursements.

This year, current aldermen commissioned John Hoal of H3 Studios Inc. to complete the condition assessment of Sunset Manor for $12,000. The study found that Sunset Manor is essentially a neighborhood typical of the 1950s that is being pressured due to its geographic location near Interstate 44, Watson Road and South Lindbergh Boulevard.

Hunzeker said from those findings, city leaders can now fully see what they have to work with and appropriately revitalize the neighborhood.

“The condition assessment that we did has some extremely valuable information,” Hunzeker said. “You can conclude why the city did what the city did. Not withstanding that fact, that property, just due to its geographic location, will continue to be under development pressure. Developers are always going to be interested in redeveloping that area. They’re always interested in redeveloping that area because municipal governments have the right to use these powerful tools called eminent domain and tax-increment financing.

“But just because government has the right to use those tools for what developers like to do — develop — that doesn’t mean we have to do it. Just because those tools are out there doesn’t mean we have to use them for this sort of development. But by the same token, because that project’s located where it’s located, people are still going to be interested in redeveloping.”

Hoffmann recently clarified that she voted against two ordinances approving the use of eminent domain and a development agreement for the shopping center.

The Call incorrectly reported Nov. 30 that she voted in May 2005 to support those ordinances.

Hoffmann did vote in favor of suspending the rules to vote on those ordinances, but stressed that she only voted in favor of having a vote — not in favor of the actual ordinances.

“It wasn’t reading of the bill,” Hoffmann said. “It was a motion to suspend the rules and read the bill for the second time. So we weren’t voting. The only vote on the bill is the second reading. So what you read was a vote to suspend the rules and read the bill for the second time.”

She then voted “no” on final votes of both ordinances related to the project.

“I strive to represent my constituents, which is why I voted the way I voted,” Hoffmann said. “And also, I’m personally very much against eminent domain.”

Hunzeker also reiterated his opposition to eminent domain last week.

“Why would we as a community agree to see 15 percent of our housing stock wiped out in order to enrich a developer?” Hunzeker said. “If people understood what the alternatives were, we could have the greatest, finest shopping center in the world if we all want to penalize our school systems, our fire departments and our police departments to pay for it. We can do that. But why would we do that? It seems to me that if somebody wants to redevelop and own and build a shopping center, go for it. But just recognize you’ve got to work within the confines of the marketplace and don’t go looking for subsidies from public officials.”