St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger plans to renew his push to allow unincorporated St. Louis County residents to vote on a sales tax increase for the St. Louis County Police Department. State legislation is needed to authorize such an election for the department that patrols unincorporated parts of St. Louis County, including large portions of the northern and southern parts of the county.
But the bill, which would allowed the County Council to set a vote on a one-half cent sales tax increase, got intertwined with efforts to revamp the county sales tax distribution system. That has always been a highly controversial idea. Ultimately, the measure didn’t cross the legislative finish line when the General Assembly adjourned earlier this month.
During his press availability last week, Stenger also chalked up the legislative loss to the relative newness of his administration when the legislature convened in January.
“Our approach this time was dictated by the fact that we were a new administration and we were just coming in at the beginning of session,” Stenger said. “The first thing we had to do is assess our needs once we took office. So the next time, there will be a different strategy. We’re an administration that’s already in place. We enter the year understanding that’s a need. And so, our approach will be different.”
Stenger wouldn’t provide details of the new strategy or how he’d avoid getting the take hike entangled in the sales tax distribution issue. But he did say he would “redouble” the county’s efforts to get the enabling legislation through the General Assembly.
He also said the fact that new speaker of the Missouri House – Todd Richardson – isn’t from the St. Louis area shouldn’t have an effect on the county’s prospects.
“We’ve worked [with Richardson] on other issues,” Stenger said. “Certainly, a different speaker is going to make a difference. And the fact that the speaker is not from the St. Louis area will make a difference. But we’ll determine the appropriate strategy. And it’s a priority, and we want to get that passed.”
Hole in the world
Back in April, Stenger said the tax proposal was a way to get more officers and newer equipment on the streets for the county police department. He said it was especially necessary after county police officers were heavily used during the unrest in Ferguson.
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said the tax could pay for “two-man” vehicles. During an interview on Tuesday, he said that type of arrangement could have prevented a confrontation between Michael Brown and then-Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson.
"I said from the beginning, had there been a two-man car the day that the encounter happened with Michael Brown, it would have ended differently,” Belmar said. “I think that perhaps that measure of officer safety, that measure of being able to understand that it’s more difficult to encounter two officers than one officer could have made in a difference.”
He also said the tax would be important for retaining staff – especially since county police officials can be lured away to work in higher-paying jobs in area municipalities.
“Look at my professional staff – my dispatchers. The folks that work in the crime lab. All throughout the police department,” Belmar said. “They haven’t been able to realize that pay benefit yet. And they’re as vital to this organization as any police officer on the street it. And then moving forward, where are we going to go with future raises? And how do we keep and retain those professional officers that we have out there?”
Asked if he was frustrated that the police sales tax measure could be intertwined with the county sales tax pool issue, Belmar said: “I feel like that from talking with the folks in Jefferson City – our elected officials – that I had a lot of support for this enabling legislation.
“But the fact that it got mired within the pool tax formula, you know I can’t control that,” he said. “Those are decisions that are made that go way beyond my pay grade. And those things happened. All I can tell you is that I’m anxious to revisit this issue.”
Making the case
If the enabling bill ends up passing next year, the St. Louis County Council would be responsible for placing it on the ballot in unincorporated parts of the county. Stenger has a commanding bipartisan coalition on the council, so he should have too much difficulty.
Whether voters in unincorporated St. Louis County approve the tax hike, though, is another story.
Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Huntleigh, said she has no philosophical objection to letting people vote on tax increases. But she added that Stenger would have make a case that the tax increase is needed – and subsequently explain how the revenue will be spent.
“You have to back up and say ‘well is this needed? How much money are we talking about raising? What are we going to do with the money that we currently have? And why isn’t that enough to cover the proposed increase that Steve is looking to pay for county police?’” Wasinger said on the Politically Speaking podcast before the legislature adjourned.
“But ultimately, I think, it should be up to the voters to decide,” she added. “Whether or not there should be a sales tax? There’s a debate on that too. Is it a regressive tax? At what point do we stop passing these sales taxes?”