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Government, Politics & Issues

Lembke lays out his reasons for seeking restrictions on E-911 tax, and ending it after five years

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 3, 2009 - State Sen. Jim Lembke is targeting the newly approved E-911 sales tax hike in St. Louis, which is to be used to upgrade police, fire and ambulance communications.

Lembke, R-Lemay, has quietly pre-filed a bill this week in the state Legislature that would:

-- Exempt county food purchases from the 1/10 a cent sales tax hike known as E-911;

-- Sunset the tax increase after five years.

-- Bar the county from ever "imposing or re-authorizing such a tax."

Word of Lembke's pre-filed bill was circulating privately Wednesday night among county officials and political activists.

His proposed restrictions appear to reflect the concerns of opponents of E-911, which included the Tesson Ferry Republican Club, in Lembke's district.

The E-911 sales tax hike, which goes into effect Jan. 1, was approved by close to 70 percent of the county voters on Nov. 3.  South County townships (including Tesson Ferry) were only slightly less supportive, with roughly 60 percent of those voters voting in favor of E-911.

The 1/10 a cent tax is projected to raise $16 million a year to pay for an $100 million bond issue that would finance an $80 million interoperable radio system for police, fire, and emergency personnel throughout the county.

It also is to pay for a $10 million system of 911 emergency call centers to trace location of calls from cell phones, which now can't be done in the county.

Another $10 million is to be used to repair non-working tornado warning sirens and add 60 more such sirens around the county.

The bond issue is to be retired in 20 years, but backers of E-911 said the tax would continue to be needed to pay for maintenance and improvements.

If food purchases are exempt from the sales tax, supporters have said it would raise about $3 million less a year ($13 million instead of $16 million).

Supporters of the E-911 tax include St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch, five of the seven members of the County Council and a number of municipalities. Former County Councilman Skip Mange, a Republican, was chairman of the campaign.

But there were some opponents, although they weren't vocal at the end of the campaign. They included County Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, who had come out in September against the sales tax hike, saying there were other ways to raise the money to pay for the emergency communications improvements. Other opponents contended that the E-911 tax hike should, at minimum, have a sunset clause.

UPDATE: Lembke explained in an interview Thursday that he was chiefly concerned about the lack of a sunset clause in E-911, as it now stands.

"I'm not trying to thwart the will of the people,'' the senator said. "I just want (the county) to go back to the voters'' if they need an extension of the tax.

Lembke said his ban on re-authorizing the tax applied only to any effort to extend it without a public vote.

He added that he was flexible on his sunset provision, and was willing to extend it to seven years, for example, if that was necessary to make sure enough money was raised to pay for the communication improvements sought by E-911 in the first place.

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