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Government, Politics & Issues

In St. Louis County, Stenger wins 2nd term, but faces new limits on power; Zoo tax passes

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger and political strategist Ed Rhode celebrate in Stenger's home. He defeated Republican challenger Paul Berry in Tuesday's election.
Chad Davis | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger and political strategist Ed Rhode celebrate in Stenger's home. He defeated Republican challenger Paul Berry in Tuesday's election.

Steve Stenger, the incumbent St. Louis County executive, has won another four years in office.

Stenger, a Democratic, handily beat his opponents, Republican Paul Berry, a bail bondsman, and two third-party candidates with 57 percent of the vote. He will enter his second term as county executive in January facing a hostile County Council on which he has no reliable allies.

Also Tuesday, St. Louis County voters approved a zoo tax and four changes to the county charter, while St. Charles County residents passed a smoking ban.

“I’m elated,” Stenger told St. Louis Public Radio in an interview at his house in Clayton. “It’s going to be a great continuation of what we’ve done for the first four years, and with those kind of numbers, we clearly have a mandate by St. Louis County voters who believe we are doing a good job.”

He highlighted the implementation of a prescription drug monitoring program that is now used almost statewide, and the passage of a half-cent sales tax increase known as Proposition P that boosted the salaries of St. Louis County police officers.

Berry could not be reached for comment.

Stenger pledged to focus on infrastructure during his second term, which could be complicated by the rejection of a state gas tax increase. He said he would also push to make sure that contracting in the county is “even more fair than it is right now.”


Council, Stenger still at odds

In the only contested race for County Council, former St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch, R-Fenton, beat his Democratic opponent, Paul Ward by nine points. Although Fitch pledged to be independent during an appearance on the Politically Speaking podcast, some expect him to oppose much of Stenger’s agenda.

Stenger said he wasn’t worried that the council dynamics would stifle his plans for his second term.

“If you look back at what we’ve done over the last four years, all of what we did required council approval and council agreeing that this was the way to proceed,” he said. “I would anticipate that we will probably have disagreements, but as you’ve seen with respect to progress over the last four years, it is progress that is real and it is palpable.”

In addition to an uncooperative council, Stenger will also be working under new limits on his power imposed after  voters Tuesday night gave the County Council the authority to “make supplemental or emergency appropriations from available income and [may] reduce or transfer appropriations.” This charter amendment also requires council approval for any transfers of funds among departments.

The council placed the budgeting changes on the ballot over Stenger’s veto, who had called them a “power grab” that “completely eliminates the checks and balances in our local government.” But he said Tuesday night he didn’t expect it to hinder progress adding, “I think we’ll find ways to continue moving forward and upward.”

Supporters argued the charter amendment was actually the Council exercising its oversight authority.

Stenger’s campaign committee had given almost $200,000 to the campaign committee of the Missouri Association of Career Fire Protection Districts, which spent thousands on ads opposing the budgeting changes.

In August, voters narrowly rejected a charter change that would have given the County Council the authority to hire its own attorney. Supporters are expected to try and put that on the ballot again, possibly in April.

St. Louis County government will also be operating with a new level of transparency. Voters overwhelmingly approved setting up a website that will post financial information, including budget documents and pension fund balances.

St. Louis County voters also said yes to campaign finance caps, and to requiring a public vote for the sale of, or certain uses for, parkland. The limits on park use stem from a controversial plan to build an ice hockey facility on land within the borders of Creve Coeur Lake Memorial Park.

Campaign contributions will be limited to $2,600 for county offices such as executive, assessor and prosecutor. In addition, campaign committees will no longer be allowed to accept donations from companies wanting to do business with the county when a contract is out for bid. It does not, however, prohibit contributions from firms that already have business with the county.

And voters endorsed the formation of a commission to study changes to the county’s charter, which was last revised in 1979. County residents must vote on the commission every 10 years.

Zoo tax

People buying anything in St. Louis County will have to pay a little more with the approval of a 1/8th of one cent sales tax increase for the St. Louis Zoo. The tax will add 12 cents to a $100 purchase. The money will be used mostly for construction of a adventure park and breeding facility in north St. Louis County, as well as updates to the infrastructure at the main facility in Forest Park.

“We are humbled and maybe a little bit surprised,” said Jeffrey Bonner, the Zoo’s president, of the 61 percent vote in favor. “Even people that didn’t necessarily vote for yes for this, they still love the Zoo, they have a reverence for the Zoo in this community that you don’t find in other communities for other zoos.”

Bonner said work will begin this winter on the train tunnels at the Zoo in Forest Park. It will take about a year and a half to design the facility in Spanish Lake, he said.


Smoking ban

Voters in St. Charles County adopted a limited ban on smoking in public places, 70 percent - 30 percent. There are a number of exemptions, including private clubs like the Elks, bars that only serve those over 21, and half of the gaming floor at Ameristar Casino.

Voters in St. Louis County also chose to limit smoking to half of the floor of the Hollywood and River City casinos. The current smoking ban language exempts all areas of the casinos.


Reporter Chad Davis contributed to this article.

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