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Sales tax proposal to develop Arch grounds still has many hurdles

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 20, 2012 - House Majority Leader Tim Jones is pushing back against assertions that a proposal providing voters in the St. Louis area a chance to raise sales taxes to improve, among other things, the St. Louis Arch grounds was done clandestinely.

While the Eureka Republican has expressed support for a parks sales tax, St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann has sharply criticized it and Gov. Jay Nixon remains non-committal.

A public-private partnership, The City + The Arch + The River 2015, has led the efforts to renovate the Arch grounds by the monument's 50th birthday in 2015. Most attention has focused on federal and private funds for the $578 million project. A plan to increase the sales tax marks the first time local taxpayers have been asked to contribute to the project.

The proposal – placed on as an amendment to a bill in the Missouri House dealing with local sales taxes – would allow the St. Louis Board of Aldermen and the county councils in St. Louis County and St. Charles County to put a sales tax increase on that ballot. Rep. Anne Zerr, R-St. Charles, sponsored the amendment. The bill passed the House in early March by a vote of 133-17.

Ryan McClure, the communications director of City Arch River, said that 60 percent of the proceeds would to the Great Rivers Greenway, while 40 percent would go to local parks.

The money going to Great Rivers Greenway, he said, would be used for “enhancements” on the Arch grounds and developing trails throughout the region.

“Great Rivers Greenway [is] set up in a way where it can work with any local government agency in their jurisdiction,” McClure said. “The way the legislation is set up, it’ll also be able to work with any U.S. government jurisdiction, so that would mean the National Parks Service. The park services are allowed to accept money from agencies like (Great Rivers). And it would be more enhancements on the Arch grounds, not maintenance.”

McClure said the sales tax increase would generate about $11.5 million a year for the Arch grounds if voters in all three jurisdictions approve the measure. He said about $15 million would go toward local parks.

Mixed reactions from officials

The legislature often passes bills allowing local governments to put tax increases on the ballot. But in a statement to the Beacon, St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann said this plan amounts to a “bailout” of the federal government.

“We knew that this proposal would be brought to the General Assembly, and we expected the bill to be filed and for the public to be given an opportunity to be heard in a committee hearing,” Ehlmann said. “Instead this was inserted into a bill on the floor of the House and passed with no public hearing. And from what have been told, there was no discussion.”

St. Charles County spokesman John Sonderegger said Ehlmann has been talking with St. Charles’ lawmakers about the legislation, adding that the former state senator is “not in favor of the bill at all.” Neither Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, nor state Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, returned messages for comment on the bill.

But Jones said the measure passed “in the form of an amendment debated on the House floor." He added he was “bemused” by the press coverage that implied secrecy about the provision.

Jones said the matter was openly debated on the floor, and members were well aware of what they were voting on.

“I don’t see the ‘cloak and dagger’ element,” he said. “There was no secrecy whatsoever to the measure.”

Jones said he supports the tax proposal since the Arch and its grounds represent “our key tourism area” that he said must be maintained and improved.

Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, said he hasn’t taken a close look at the proposal. While he said that he’s supported bills in the past that allowed local jurisdictions to vote on sales taxes, he added, "At this point, I really don’t have a sense of what the Senate might do with that bill.”

“I haven’t had the opportunity to study that provision,” he said. “So at this point, I couldn’t even tell you where I might be personally on that provision.”

Of course, the proposal could change significantly even if it passes the Missouri Senate. And it would still need Nixon's approval.

“I know the measure; it was not discussed too much when it was one of the provisions in the House,” Nixon said last week at the Boys and Girls Club. “We’ll see what happens when it gets over to the Senate.”

Nixon noted that the Missouri Department of Transportation had “worked hard” to get funding for a “lid," covering the depressed Interstate 70 highway lanes  and  connecting downtown to the Arch. That aspect of the project was noted numerous times during a ceremony last year at the Old Court House.

“We’ve worked hard on those dollars and we’ll continue to get that done,” Nixon said. “Whether this is the right method for long-range planning, I don’t know. We’ll look at it as we move into the last eight or nine weeks of the session.”

St. Louis County is 'critical'

McClure said the proposal doesn’t require approval from all three jurisdictions to go into effect. If St. Louis and St. Louis County voters approve the sales tax and St. Charles County voters rejected it, the plan could go still go forward with a smaller amount of money.

But Tom Irwin, the executive director of Civic Progress, said getting St. Louis County voters to approve the proposal is essential. Even if St. Charles County and St. Louis voters pass the proposal, without St. Louis County the tax wouldn't generate enough revenue.

Mac Scott, a spokesman for St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, said Dooley thinks the project is “of regional and national importance.”

“It’s very important,” Scott said. “He’s glad that if things progress positively, this will be something that the voters will be able to decide.”

Some wonder if the sales tax proposal could provide a dedicated funding stream to St. Louis County parks. Parks funding has been a major source of contention between Dooley and the St. Louis County Council.

Several council members, including Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, have stated they would oppose any tax increase. Asked if the local parks issue could jeopardize the proposal if it goes before the St. Louis County Council, Irwin said, “I honestly don’t know.”

“I have an extraordinary amount of respect for the county executive and the members of the St. Louis County Council, many of whom I know pretty well,” Irwin said. “And what that really means is that … we’ll have the opportunity to make the case. But ultimately they get to decide. We harbor no illusions about this being an easy path. We know it’s a difficult task.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.
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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