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St. Louis County Council takes final action to place Metro sales tax on April ballot

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 21, 2009 - The St. Louis County Council took final action Monday afternoon to place a proposed one-half cent sales tax on the April ballot to provide more money for Metro, the region's financially strapped public transit system.

The vote was 4-3 in favor, the same as last week's preliminary vote.

If approved by voters next spring, the tax could raise up to $80 million a year, depending on the economy. County voters rejected a similar proposal in 2008, prompting a round of severe cuts in service and workers in March.

There was a short moment of drama Monday when it appeared that the County Council would have to delay the vote until next week because Councilman Michael O'Mara, a Democrat from north St. Louis County, wasn't on the podium and couldn't be found. Without O'Mara, the vote would have been tied at 3-3, and the bill would have died.

After a vote to hold over final passage, County Executive Charlie Dooley and others went into the halls and found O'Mara. He returned to his seat, and a new vote was taken to officially put the proposal on the April ballot.

O'Mara said afterward that his absence was no big deal and had nothing to do with the Metro vote. "I'm all for Metro,'' O'Mara said.

The four votes supporting Metro all came from Democrats: O'Mara, Hazel Erby of University City, Barbara Fraser of mid-county and Kathleen Kelly Burkett of North County. Burkett noted that she's the only council member who regularly uses Metro; she takes it to her job downtown every day.

Opposed were Democrat Steve Stenger of Affton and Republicans Greg Quinn of west St. Louis County and Colleen Wasinger of Town and Country.

Dooley praised the council's vote and said it was appropriate for the voters to decide on the proposal's fate. He added, though, that no major city can compete if it lacks a good public-transit system.

Bob Baer, Metro's executive director, said he was pleased with the council's action but upset at some of the comments made this week and last week by Quinn and Stenger.

Both had contended that their areas have been repeatedly shortchanged by Metro, and that many south county and west county residents have no access to public transportation. The bulk of the cuts made in March, they said, also were in their districts.

Quinn said that even if the sales tax is approved, "I don't have any confidence that we'll have appreciably more service" in his district.

Baer was visibly upset by such complaints. He added that if the sales tax passes, "we'll get to restore as much as humanly possible."

"We're playing catch-up here," says Baer. "When you cut service, you deprive people of getting to the jobs."

Baer said that he was concerned that Quinn's accusations were the sort of comment that could influence voters against the tax increase.

Unlike last year's Metro ballot measure, which was rejected by voters, the April proposal does not require Metro to split the money raised between operation and expansions. However, Baer says that is Metro's intention. Voters should see a detailed plan of proposed expansions and improvements by March, he said.

The reason MetroLink has not expanded as fast as some would like, he added, is because there's been no local share to meet the federal match. As a resule, Baer said, the region has had for years to forego any federal assistance for expansion.

Longstanding critic Tom Sullivan said he'll do what he can to fight the sales tax increase. He complained that Metro diverts revenue to the MetroLink rail system, away from the buses, which he says are most critical to people who are handicapped.

Chesterfield Mayor John Nations, who is heading the Metro sales-tax campaign, said the sales tax increase will help create "a truly world-class, 21st-century transportation system." He promised an aggressive campaign to win public support.

"We're gong to make an effort like never before -- to every city, every township, every block," promised Nations.

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