Voters likely will consider two county ballot measures in November

Longtime critic of Metro urges council to place sales-tax hike on Nov. 4 ballot

By BURKE WASSON

County officials likely will ask residents in November to support two ballot issues and also plan to seek another tax-rate increase as well as a new tax next April.

As proposed, county residents will vote Nov. 4 on Proposition M — a half-cent sales-tax increase that will be used to fund MetroLink operations and rail expansion to Westport and Florissant.

The measure also would go toward arterial road improvements throughout the county.

Additionally, voters likely will be asked in November to approve a $120 million general-obligation bond issue that will fund many capital improvements recommended by the county’s Blue Ribbon Commission. Those capital projects include a new family courts building, renovations to the county’s court building, construction of a new animal shelter and expansion of the county’s crime and health labs. The bond issue would not increase the tax rate, but would extend the time to retire that debt’s interest and principal for those capital projects.

On top of these two November ballot issues come another proposed tax-rate increase and a new tax in April.

The Blue Ribbon Commission —a group of regional business, political and civic leaders appointed this year by County Executive Charlie Dooley — also has recommended that voters be asked in April to approve a sales-and-use tax as well as a sales-tax increase to fund parks improvements.

As proposed, the new parks sales tax would use $7 million of revenue to issue $70 million in certificates of participation, or COPs, for parks projects.

County voters in 2004 narrowly rejected a parks sales-tax increase of one-eighth of a cent.

Approval of Proposition P just slipped out of the county’s reach in April 2004 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 with 60,564 total votes saying “no” to the parks tax — 50.29 percent.

Additionally, the new sales-and-use tax would tax out-of-state purchases of more than $2,000. The county would use $15 million of that revenue to support $150 million in COPs for public safety and job creation.

Blue Ribbon Commission Chairman and former County Councilman Skip Mange said last week that the sales-and-use tax would go toward funding a new county police communications system that will increase interoperability with other police departments

As for the November ballot issues, the County Council was set to vote Tuesday night — after the Call went to press — on an ordinance that would place the proposed half-cent sales tax for Metro on the Nov. 4 ballot.

Last week, the council voted 5-2 to perfect a bill for that ordinance. Sixth District County Councilman John Campisi, R-south county, and 7th District County Councilman Greg Quinn, R-Ballwin, cast the two “no” votes.

The council also allocated $39.5 million to Metro from a separate half-cent transportation sales tax.

The allocation is $10 million less than Metro received from that fund last year, and more money is proposed for improvement of arterial roads.

The tax-rate increase would raise an estimated $80 million a year for operation of Metro’s bus system and MetroLink and also expansion of the light-rail line to Westport and Florissant.

Metro Interim Chief Bob Baer told the County Council during a July 29 Committee of the Whole hearing that the transit agency has corrected many of its past mistakes that led to the council ultimately taking Prop M off the February 2008 ballot.

Sen. Claire McCaskill called for an audit of Metro’s finances when she was state auditor. Current Missouri Auditor Susan Montee is expected to release the audit in September.

Metro was faced with the request of $27 million in legal fees from attorneys representing the four firms Metro had sued.

The transit agency had sought more than $80 million from the Cross County Collaborative — Parsons Brinckerhoff, Jacobs Civil Inc., STV Inc. and Kwame Building Group — alleging they were responsible for delays and cost overruns on the Cross County MetroLink project.

That lawsuit ultimately proved to be unsuccessful, and Baer said Metro has refocused its energies on fiscal responsibility and performance.

“We have gone through an extensive lessons-learned project,” Baer said. “In other words, mistakes have been made and we’ve been ensuring how to correct those in the future and how to make sure the proper controls are in place. That’s all in the works and being done. We’ve also had a state audit, as you know. And that’s coming to fruition.

“There are a number of comments in that report that we concur with. There are a lot of helpful suggestions. You might remember a while back, there was some controversy about the audit. On my first day here, I talked with (state Auditor) Susan Montee and assured her that we’d give her everything that she wanted. We have done that and are in the process of reviewing their comments …”

University City resident and longtime Metro critic Tom Sullivan told the Committee of the Whole last week that he supports the County Council’s decision to place Prop M on the ballot so county residents can prove that they do not want to pay more taxes to the transit agency.

“I am urging the county to go ahead and put this proposal on the ballot, this sales tax for Metro,” Sullivan said. “… I think it needs to be decided and I think Metro and St. Louis County is going to be sent an unfavorable message by the voters, which is that they’re not going to give any more money to Metro …

“We’ve had all these cost overruns and we’ve had all these various other problems that people are upset with reassessment, the trash program, et cetera. It’s hard to understand how anybody thinks that Prop M is going to pass.”

As for county projects in total, county officials proposed to the Blue Ribbon Commission that $528.7 million be spent over the next five to seven years on an expansive capital-investment program. The projects would be funded through a combination of existing funding as well as general-obligation bonds and certificates of participation, some of which would require voter approval.

The county’s proposed $528.7 million capital-investment initiative is broken down into five sections — buildings, transportation, parks, economic development and “safety/security and communication.”

The county’s $528.7 million proposal over the next five to seven years includes $213.4 million for transportation facilities as well as roadways, bridges, sidewalks and intersections; $117. 1 million for safety/security and communication; $112.8 million for buildings; $43.9 million for parks improvements and $41.5 million for economic development.

The five-to-seven-year $528.7 million proposal initially was estimated to be a proposal of $430 million to $530 million that would be needed in the next 10 to 20 years.

Financing options for these would be obtained through existing funding, general-obligation bonds and COPs.