Voters give county parks tax the slip

By Alyson E. Raletz

Voters last week rejected an eighth-of-a-cent county parks tax by less than a 1 percent margin.

Approval of Proposition P, an eighth-of-a-cent sales-tax increase that would have benefited the St. Louis County parks system, slipped out of the county’s reach April 6 with 49.71 percent of voters supporting the tax — 59,877 votes.

A difference of 687 ballots, however, revealed that more than half of voters opposed the tax last Tuesday with 60,564 total votes saying “no” to the parks tax — 50.29 percent.

County leaders have taken some heat regarding their recent involvement with the promotion of the tax — just one of the reasons Tom Sullivan believes the parks tax failed.

Sullivan, longtime activist and critic of county government, filed two ethics complaints in March with the Missouri Ethics Commission — alleging the county was using public resources to promote Proposition P.

County officials claimed the tax would have generated at least $9.5 million, which would have funded ongoing operations and maintenance of the regional park system.

Tax projections also revealed that $3 million would have been generated to fund park enhancement projects.

An additional $4 million would have been used to finance the annual payments made on the bonds that would have been sold to construct the improvements outlined in the parks department’s master plans.

However, Sullivan alleged in March that two of the county’s top officials, County Executive Charlie Dooley and Council Chairman Skip Mange, R-Town and Country, were using county resources to promote the passage of the parks tax.

He contended the county funded the drafting of press releases, multimedia presentations and other materials to promote the passage of Proposition P.

Mange and Dooley are the co-chairmen of Citizens for Quality Parks, a Proposition P campaign committee.

Despite Mange’s dissatisfaction with the outcome of last Tuesday’s election, he told the Call Citizens for Quality Parks will be meeting soon to formulate an action plan.

“I am totally dissatisfied with the results — we lost,” Mange said. “I am disappointed about the outcome of the vote. A lot of people worked hard on this. It was a bipartisan effort on the part of the county executive and the council.”

“Two things are going to have to happen,” Mange continued.

“The citizens committee will get together next week, review the actual results by area, and then make a decision about whether we go back to voters in the future.”

Mange said he and Dooley have visited Jefferson City and are exploring if food would be able to be exempted from the parks tax if it would be passed at a later date.

He acknowledged that some criticism surrounding Proposition P stemmed from food being included in the parks tax.

“It would make the tax less regressive,” Mange said of exempting food from the tax.

But Sullivan noted that the county leaders’ efforts are “Too little too late.”

Mange added, “We’ll just have to decide if we go back to the voters again.

“In the meantime, the parks department will have to prioritize things. It is clear that we have a revenue problem throughout county government, not just in the parks department.

“A series of budget meetings will take place next month and some hard decisions will have to be made on what to do for county government …,” he said, also noting that budget work sessions for 2005 would begin to take place this summer.

“There is no doubt in my mind there will be reductions to county services.”

Sullivan told the Call that he did not know how his ethics complaints affected the outcome of the election.

However, he believed the complaints prevented the county from spending additional tax money on the proposal.

“It might have inhibited future spending of public resources,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan is a member of No on Proposition P, a committee dedicated to preventing the passage of Proposition P prior to last week’s election.

The committee was initiated by another group, the Coalition Against the Public Funding of Stadiums. No on Proposition P members publicly have contended in recent months that the County Council allocated tourism dollars to the funding of a new Cardinals stadium instead of using those tax dollars to support the parks system.

The coalition, to date, has collected 5,000 of 25,000 needed signatures to allow county voters to decide in a future election whether the county should use public money to fund a private stadium.

“We got 687 more votes than they did, but the job is only half done here,” No on Proposition P Spokesman Fred Lindecke told the Call.

“We still have to give citizens of St. Louis County a chance to vote on whether tax money should be spent to build a Cardinals ballpark …”

Lindecke continued, “We called this Proposition P the Cardinal stadium tax increase … The county had money for parks available — money from county hotel taxes. They’ve spent that money in the past for parks, but then gave that money away — the money committed by the county council to pay for the bonds.

“They did that in December, then in April they had the nerve to come back and ask citizens of the county to put a tax on themselves to replace the money they just gave away.”

Councilman Kathleen “Kelly” Burkett, D-north county, thanked Council Chairman Skip Mange, R-Town and Country, and County Executive Charlie Dooley during a council meeting April 6 for their involvement and support of Proposition P — despite recent criticism of their efforts.

“I would like to give my personal thanks to you and County Executive Dooley for everything you did for Prop P because I know the two of you took not only the brunt of the work, but the brunt of some of the criticism that came along with it,” Burkett said.