St. Louis County Pulls Planned Sales Tax Hike from February Ballot

Published March 1, 2008

Less than one month after voting to put a 200 percent sales tax increase on the February 5 ballot, the St. Louis (Missouri) County Council voted to remove the proposal. Likely defeat of the measure was the apparent reason for the reversal.

The tax hike was intended to raise an estimated $80 million a year for the St. Louis Metro transit agency, which runs the St. Louis metropolitan region’s MetroBus, MetroLink light rail, and Metro Call-A-Ride paratransit systems.

News media scrutiny and organized opposition proved too much to bear for the beleaguered agency and County Executive Charlie Dooley (D) and his allies on the County Council.

The current transit sales tax is one-quarter cent. On November 19 the council voted 5-2 to ask voters for an additional half-cent sales tax, which would have tripled the tax.

But only 27 days after voting to place Prop M before voters, the council voted 7-0 on December 18 to repeal the ordinance placing the measure on the ballot. County officials obtained a court order the next day removing the proposition from the ballot.

Citizens Rise Up

St. Louis County residents, still in shock from the second consecutive cycle of 20 to 30 percent increases in property tax reassessments on their homes, wasted little time in establishing a campaign committee to defeat the proposal, called Prop M. They received unexpected help from Metro in the form of a bungled court case and a profane insult by Metro’s own chief executive officer.

Even before the council voted to place the sales tax increase on the ballot, the influential weekly publication Call Newspapers came out in opposition to Prop M.

Executive Editor Mike Anthony wrote in an editorial concerning voters in the southern portion of St. Louis County, “They have little incentive to vote for a tax-rate increase that would provide them no tangible benefit whatsoever except for another chance to subsidize public transportation for the rest of St. Louis County.”

In 2003, Metro completed an eight-mile, cross-county extension of the light-rail system known as Metrolink. The project was delivered 15 months late and $126 million over budget.

Jury Slaps Metro

In an attempt to shift the blame for the bungled project, Metro sued the contractors, known as the Cross County Collaborative (CCC), for more than $80 million. After 100 days of testimony in the longest trial in St. Louis County history, the jury denied Metro’s claims against CCC and instead awarded CCC $2.6 million in counterclaims plus $700,000 in interest.

A judge now is considering a request that Metro pay CCC’s legal fees, which total $27.3 million.

CEO Issues Insult

Shortly before the verdict, Metro’s $250,000-a-year CEO, Larry Salci, was being interviewed by the local Fox News television affiliate and was caught on camera afterwards disparaging the reporter by remarking, “He fits right into St. Louis. He’s a [expletive] clown.”

On December 7 Salci and Metro’s chief legal counsel resigned. Together they received a severance package totaling $387,000.

Measure Could Reappear

Asked if Prop M will reappear on the ballot, Republican County Councilman John Campisi, who voted against it from the beginning, said, “Whenever it does, I will oppose it again.”

Dooley has stated he wants to repair Metro’s public image before bringing the proposal back, but Campisi said the agency’s actions have awakened “a sleeping giant” of opposition.

Tom Sullivan, a longtime Metro watchdog, figures the total overrun cost on the light rail extension project at roughly $300 million. That includes an additional $150 million in bonds that were issued, interest on the bonds, legal costs, and judgments. Sullivan says the money could have bought 1,000 buses.

Aaron Hilmer ([email protected]) is treasurer of Citizens Against Prop M and chairman of the Mehlville Fire Protection District in St. Louis County, Missouri.