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Dooley's tax proposal in jeopardy, while proposed labor deal is dead

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 31, 2011 - The St. Louis County Council has effectively put the skids on two proposals: County Executive Charlie Dooley's call for a small property tax increase and an effort to set up a "project labor agreement" for the construction of the county's $16 million emergency communications center.

At Tuesday night's meeting, Dooley asked that the seven-person council meet next week with the county's budget director to discuss finances. He noted to reporters later that the director is independent and doesn't report to the county executive.

Dooley's aim appears to be to make a last-ditch stab at preserving his proposal, announced last week, for an increase of 2.3 cents in the county's tax rate for 2012. The hike would amount to a tax increase of $6.14 a year for the owner of a house valued at $140,000.

Dooley says he wants to use the money to pay for a 3 percent salary increase for county workers who have had their pay frozen for three years, as well as rising insurance and pension costs.

Dooley has revised his initial claim that the county's income has declined $10 million in the past year. He said Tuesday that the decline was $10 million from 2009 to 2010, and is $5 million for 2011.

Regardless of the size of the shortfall, the council is openly cool to any talk of a tax hike. Even pro-Dooley stalwart Hazel Erby, D-University City, told reporters Tuesday that Dooley's administration will need to find other ways to come up with the money to pay for any pay increases for county workers.

Council chairman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, declined to talk to reporters Tuesday night. But earlier, he has said that the county can come up with enough savings for pay raises by cutting other parts of the budget. Stenger has emphatically ruled out a tax hike.

Veteran councilman Greg Quinn, R-Ballwin, and fellow Republican Colleen Wasinger, R-Town and Country, also made clear in interviews that they opposed any tax increases.

"We should have empathy for people we represent,'' Quinn said. "A lot of people are losing their jobs. There's a lot of belt-tightening going on."

That opinion also was expressed by several county residents who addressed the council during their public-comment period.

Sarah Haenni said the size of the tax-hike proposal wasn't the issue. "It's the principal,'' she said. Haenni said that public employees "should share the pain" with workers in private industry.

"We're all in the same boat, or we're not,'' she said.

Similar sentiment appeared to kill off the "project labor agreement" idea that had been proposed by Florissant Police Chief William Karabas, chairman of the Emergency Communications Commission charged with overseeing construction of the county's new communications center for law enforcement, fire and emergency workers.

The project is be paid for with a sales tax hike approved by county voters in 2009 to overhaul the county's emergency- communications system.

Karabas had proposed such a labor agreement earlier this month. Project labor agreements typically are arrangements in which contractors only hire union workers, and follow union rules. But in exchange, unions agree to no work stoppages or slowdowns.

Karabas said he believed such an agreement was the best way to guarantee that the center would be completed by the federal deadline of the end of 2012.

But several contractors, and Republican candidates, have been vocal critics of the project labor agreement idea -- saying the agreement was a potential costly deal with unions.

In the end, council vice chairman Mike O'Mara, D- Florissant and a member of the Pipefitters union, pulled the plug.

O'Mara wrote a letter to Karabas, distributed at the council meeting. O'Mara wrote that the likely legislative fight over such an agreement "would, in fact, delay progress on the project."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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