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Supporters hope third time's the charm for Metro tax

By Rachel Lippmann, St. Louis Public Radio


St. Louis – Chesterfield mayor John Nations can drive one of three cars, including a Jaguar, to his office at City Hall, or his day job at a downtown law firm. And the Republican has a low-tax, small government philosophy.

So Nations will admit that his role as front-man for Proposition A can be a little hard to fathom, especially since his constituents voted against the same tax two years ago.

"But I know, as mayors around the region know, if our individual cities are going to do well, our entire region has to do well, and for our entire region to do well, we have to look at the essential elements of the economic infrastructure, and an essential element is a region-wide quality public transportation system," he said.

The 2008 vote left Metro with a $36 million budget gap. The agency closed the deficit by eliminating more than half of its bus routes, including all service to Chesterfield and other suburban employment centers.

Nations was able to get money to keep the buses running to his city, and state money saved a few others routes. But the temporary funding runs out May 31st, and it didn't help those like Kimiko Dockett. A few months ago, Dockett found a certified nursing assistant job in Ladue. But she couldn't take it.

"I had bills to pay, I had groceries to buy. A job's available, and no transportation to get there. It was very discouraging," she said.

Dockett and other members of Zion Travelers Missionary Baptist Church braved a windy, chilly Saturday morning to hang plastic bags of fliers on the doors of a North County neighborhood for the church's yearly community canvass.

The fliers inform neighbors about the church's food pantry and utility assistance program, and give the times for Easter Services. This year, though, Pastor Linden Bowie included something else - a flier about Proposition A.

The pastor was a lot more passive two years ago.

"I assumed like many others that it was another one of those amendments that would pass," he said. "So we just kinda sat along the sidelines and literally hoping and praying that everything would turn out okay. And it didn't."

This time, proponents aren't leaving it to prayer. There's a full court press to get everyone informed, including a huge TV, radio and direct mail campaign. Churches like Bowie's are doing outreach, and politicians are rolling Proposition A into their own campaigns for office.

Grassroots support is key to a successful campaign by a public agency, says strategist David Chilenski, who has worked on public agency campaigns for 10 years. In 2008, he said, Metro's supporters had their attention focused on the presidential race.

"I think however what really determined this election was the mismanagement of money at Metro. You can't overcome that in a public agency."

2008 was the first time voters had a chance to vent about the cost overruns that plagued the Cross County MetroLink expansion, Chilenski said.

"The hard part about going out and losing is that it really enhances the opposition. It emboldens them."

And the opposition is fired up, with a sense of deja vu. On the same chilly Saturday, St. Louis Tea Party leader Bill Hennessy addressed about 40 of them gathered in Clayton.

"Let's not be back here in four years trying to fight a half-cent sales tax because they wasted this half-cent sales tax. Let's make them establish some sort of accountability first," he said.

The anti Prop-A campaign has raised $750. Supporters have dropped $150,000 on television alone. But opponents point out that nearly every transit tax in the region has been defeated despite similar funding imbalances. And they are riding a wave of anti-tax sentiment that's bringing political neophytes like Debbie Stinger out to protest.

"I don't use MetroLink, I don't know why I would need to pay $650 extra a year," she said.

Chesterfield mayor John Nations calls that mindset crippling to the region. Metro's priority is restarting the eliminated bus routes. No additional funds mean further cuts. And those who worry about jobs, he says, should consider that 650 Metro employees will lose theirs in May if Proposition A fails at the ballot box.