Parts of St. Louis would have the highest sales tax in Missouri under the half-cent increase the Board of Aldermen’s budget committee passed Wednesday.
Many committee members reluctantly voted for the increase, which will fund raises for police and firefighters if voters approve the measure this November. Should it pass, St. Louis’ sales tax would be at least 9.7 percent, going up to nearly 12 percent in some special taxing districts.
"Nobody wants to do this,” Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed said. He pointed to St. Louis County voters, who approved a similar half-cent sales tax increase in April. County officials announced last week that officers would see, on average, a 30 percent raise next year.
Reed noted, “being situated as we are, with the county passing its tax, it really puts our entire public safety systems under major strain.”
While Alderman Steve Conway, D-8th Ward, said he believes city voters will go for the tax increase, he acknowledged that the idea won’t be popular.
“I don’t know what all the reservations were about, but I had to sit there and do the math to make sure that I could get it out” of committee, Conway said.
The firefighter’s union is expected to play a big role in getting 15 aldermen to vote for taking the question to voters in November — and getting voters to say yes. Local 73 President Demetris Alfred said he knows the increase is controversial.
“I don’t look at the task as being hard,” he said. “It’s being as transparent as possible. Let the voters know what they’re voting for, where the money will go, and I think that will speak for itself.”
If approved in November, the sales tax increase would generate about $20 million a year. Most of that — $18 million worth — would go toward the raises for police officers and the corresponding required raises for firefighters. The circuit attorney’s office would also see an increase in spending.
Approval of the sales tax increase would automatically trigger an increase in the use tax, which is expected to generate another $3.9 million. That would be spread equally among job and recreation programs, the public defender’s office and social service needs like mental health treatment.
Activists in St. Louis have raised questions about whether the police department needs all of the money it is requesting, considering it has more officers per capita than many other larger cities where the crime rate is lower. Some are also cautioning St. Louis against another sales tax increase.
“Hopefully it’s not something that’s going to come at a disadvantage for others, meaning that we’re not going to tax poor communities more,” Ethical Society of Police President Sgt. Heather Taylor said this month. “They’re already paying a lot of taxes there.”
The Ethical Society represents officers of color in the department.
To avoid a sales tax increase, Conway also introduced a bill that would ask voters to make nonprofit organizations with 50 or more employees pay the city’s half-cent payroll tax. The original proposal applied to nonprofits with 20 or more employees — the budget committee made that change on Wednesday, but did not take a vote.
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