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More property tax check-offs possible

There could be two new options for St. Louis residents to use their property tax bills  next year as a vehicle for charitable donations.

With a vote next week, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen will send they mayor  a measurethat would establish two new check-off funds in the city's budget. One would allow residents to send money to a new fund to help combat homelessness in the city.  The other would benefit Heat Up St. Louis, which provides assistance with utility payments and had to slash its grants this year because of a drop in state and federal revenue. That fund was added to the bill just before Friday's vote.

There are two check-off options already. One fundsForest Park Forever. The other was meant to fund the construction ofa new animal shelter in the city.

According to figures from the comptroller's office, there is $295,576 in the Forest Park Forever fund, which was tapped into once, in 2003. There's $246,663 in the Animal House fund. That fund has never paid out any money. And contributions to both funds have dropped recently.

(On his blog in November, Mayor Francis Slay dismissed a suggestion that Animal House money go elsewhere.)

It was the fate of the Animal House money that led a number of aldermen to express procedural concerns about the bill even while they praised its merits. They wanted provisions that would allow funds to be removed from tax bills if they aren't needed any more and also set a threshold for how much a fund has to raise in a year to remain in the check-off program.

(Alderman Fred Wessels worried about adding any extra cost to the city's budget, though it wasn't clear from the debate Friday what the cost would exactly be to program the computers at the Department of Revenue)

Alderman Jeffrey Boyd wanted the board to deal with those concerns before approving the check-offs.

"We have to be about good government and about good policy-making decisions," he said. “And I’m not sure today, if we vote on this, it’s making a good policy decision, because we already know there are some flaws in the proposed system."

But Alderwoman MarleneDavis urged her colleagues not to allow procedural concerns to make them "callous."

 "Every one of you I believe received calls wanting help to pay utility bills," she said. "We don’t have the funds as an alderperson to do that."

Her view prevailed: the measure passed on a voice vote. The final vote could be next Friday.

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.