St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger is strongly backing a state legislative effort that could result in more money for the St. Louis County Police Department.
But the legislation has become intertwined with a push to change the county sales tax pool — a system that evokes immense division among St. Louis County’s 90 municipalities.
At issue is legislation sponsored by Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, that would, among other things, authorize a one-half cent sales tax in unincorporated parts of St. Louis County. If voters approve the tax increase, it would provide more funding for the county police department, which patrols unincorporated parts of the county.
Stenger told reporters on Tuesday that the tax is needed for staff and equipment — especially after the Ferguson unrest.
“It would provide for additional officers, additional equipment,” Stenger said. “And since Aug. 9, we have had approximately about $7 million in overtime for our officers that we’ve paid. So, that alone is highly significant. And then when we talk about community policing … and also for our officers’ safety — we talk about two officers to a vehicle. That also will cost additional money. So, there are many needs that we’ve had for many years.”
Stenger says the county currently spends about $109 million on the police department, which primarily comes out of general revenue. He said that figure is relatively low compared to other counties in the state and nation.
“I believe it’s about $274 per capita,” Stenger said. “And if you contrast that with $500-some odd dollars per capita for the city of St. Louis, we do provide policing for a very low cost. And even with the additional revenue with the tax, we still be providing policing at a very low cost – particularly when you look across the region and the nation.”
But when Schatz’s bill got to the Missouri House, lawmakers approved an amendment that would change the distribution scheme for the county’s 1-cent sales tax. It would allow “pool cities” to keep at least 50 percent of the revenue generated within their borders.
As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, that provision would result in cities like Chesterfield, Maryland Heights and Fenton getting to keep more of the revenue generated by sales within their boundaries. Chesterfield has long bemoaned the sales tax distribution system, even going so far to throw around the idea of seceding from the county.
Chesterfield Mayor Bob Nation said in a telephone interview that “we’ve made much further progress regarding modification of these sales tax statutes than we ever had in previous years.
“I will say it was a welcome surprise when the county’s language for their sales tax effort was coupled with ours and attached to [Schatz’s bill],” Nation said. “Because presumably, it put the county in a position of no longer being opposed to us. … As far as linking it, I presume that the county is pursuing other options to get their legislation passed in spite of the fact that there was much filibuster on the floor of the Senate against ours.”
Indeed, the Post-Dispatch reported that the change upset municipalities that could potentially lose money from the move – such as Wildwood and Webster Groves. Stenger said that it would also result in St. Louis County losing about $800,000.
And on Tuesday, Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale strongly objected to changing sales tax pool – which in turn put the future of the bill in doubt.
Stenger said on Tuesday that “we have always in St. Louis County expressed a desire to not have that pool change, because with pool changes come a decrease in our revenue.” But he said Chesterfield has become very aggressive in trying to attach the pool tax change to numerous pieces of legislation.
While Stenger said changing the sales tax pool system is “not a situation where we thought to interject St. Louis County in any way,” he added that “we would like the law enforcement tax authorization to pass.”
“And supporting that language wherever it goes is something that we have to do in St. Louis County,” he said.
For his part, Nation said Schmitt’s objections make passage of a sales tax overall look “unlikely.” But he added there’s still a couple of weeks left in the session to alter what he sees as an unfair system.
“It’s a tough uphill battle, because on the one hand you have the recipients of pool dollars,” Nation said. “And then on the other hand, you have a few cities likes Chesterfield who are upholding and bolstering the pool. So it’s like candy. Once the baby gets the candy, they keep wanting more and more. And there are just so many irrational components of this thing that make it completely unfair.”