A half-cent sales tax increase that would generate $20 million a year for the St. Louis police and fire departments, and the circuit attorney’s office, is headed for the November ballot.
The Board of Aldermen voted 18-8 Friday to send the legislation to Mayor Lyda Krewson. She is expected to sign it soon.
Now, the work begins on selling it to the voters — something the mayor may have to do without the help of the St. Louis Police Officers Association.
Krewson applauded the board’s vote, calling it an important step toward stemming the flow of qualified officers leaving the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department for better-paying jobs in county departments.
“I don’t want to raise taxes. I don’t think any of you want to pay more taxes,” Krewson said after the board vote. “But we do have to do something to have our officers receive a much-needed salary increase.”
Few of the aldermen who voted against the sales tax argued that police officers in the city don’t deserve raises. But they were concerned about the way the city was raising the money. The sales tax increase is the second to go to a vote in six months.
If approved, the rate in some parts would be nearly 12 percent — the highest in Missouri.
“Are we going to be taxing people who have the least ability to pay and asking for them to fund a police force that by and large hasn’t doesn’t a good job at building trust and relationships in our low-income communities?” asked Alderwoman Megan Green, D-15th Ward.
Alderman Sam Moore, D-4th Ward, facetiously asked if his residents could opt out of the increase.
"The taxes that we pay right now, we're not being serviced for,” said Moore, whose ward includes the historic Ville neighborhood. “We've got all these problems, and I see no police, so we would like to opt out of this altogether."
Keeping officers in the city
If voters say yes, the sales tax would generate $20 million a year. Krewson said the $13 million a year earmarked for raises amounts to about $10,000 per officer — not enough for parity with St. Louis County police, she said, but enough to close the wage gap significantly. Another $5.4 million would fund required raises for the St. Louis Fire Department. The circuit attorney’s office would receive the remaining $1.2 million.
A sales tax increase automatically boosts the tax that businesses pay on out-of-state purchases. That money — about $4 million a year — would fund building demolition, and recreation and summer job programs.
“Public safety is not all about locking people up and prosecuting people,” Krewson said. “We also have to focus our efforts on the things that we can do to prevent crime in the first place.”
Funding earmarked for recreation programs and building demolition may help sell the sales tax in parts of the city, but it drew the ire of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, which called it “pet project funding.”
“As initially filed, Board Bill 60 would have put a half-percent sales tax increase on the ballot to raise $23 million for public safety. That is almost precisely the amount that would be needed to achieve parity with St. Louis County,” a July 7 statement posted on the union’s website reads.
“Imagine our outrage when the Mayor showed up at the committee hearing with her plan to siphon proceeds to fund social programs and other pet projects,” union officials wrote. “… By the time they were done carving up the pie, only $12.8 million was dedicated to the police department, and there was no guarantee that any of that would be used for police raises.”
Krewson fiercely disputed the characterization.
“These are necessary things that we have to do in our communities in order to have a safer community,” she said.
JP Johnson, a spokesman for the union, said the statement containing the “pet project” language was an internal email that was leaked.
“I applaud the Board of Aldermen for putting something together in a relatively quick amount of time,” he said. “I know they took a lot of heartache because it’s a regressive tax, but I think it’s those that are the least among us that need the most security.”
SLPOA president Ed Clark said in a statement posted on Friday that union leaders had not taken a position on the sales tax and remained “optimistic that we can reach an accord with the city about the raises promised by Mayor Krewson during her campaign.”
Trash fee increase
Aldermen on Friday also sent the mayor a $3 increase in the trash fee, from $11 to $14 a month. The additional money will pay for new trash trucks, alley cameras to catch illegal dumping, and a trash task force in the police department.
“The hardest part of your job here is trash,” the bill’s sponsor, Alderman Steve Conway, D-8th Ward, told his colleagues. “And the illegal dumping is a big, big problem. Your residents and my residents shouldn’t live with this. And they should also demand and expect regular and routine trash pickup.”
Alderman Shane Cohn, D-25th Ward, voted against the initial $11 fee in 2010, and against the increase on Friday.
“To this day, I have not had one person come up and thank me for the improvement that we’ve seen in trash collection services since they started paying these fees,” Cohn said.
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