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Dooley defends proposed tax-rate hike, warns of layoffs without it

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 26, 2011 - St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley says the county's decline in property values is forcing him to call for a 2.3-cent increase in the county's property tax rate for 2012. The extra costs to the typical property owner will be modest, Dooley said -- amounting to an increase of $6.14 a year for the owner of a house valued at $140,000.

Without the rate hike, the county will continue to see declines in its revenues, he said, and will have to lay off workers next year -- including 25 police officers.

The tax-rate increase is needed, said Dooley, to close a $10 million decline in the county's revenue, which he said will get even worse if the rate is not changed.

The county's rate now is 52.3 cents for each $100 of assessed valuation. A 2.3-cent increase would generate about $8.6 million over the next two years.

"We've been agonizing over this," Dooley said in an interview Friday afternoon, where he was joined by Garry Earls, the county's chief operating officer.

Since 2008, said Dooley, the county has seen declines in its property assessments, its sales tax collections and its federal aid. As a result, he added, the county has trimmed its workforce by 480 employees.

At the same time, county employees -- including police -- have seen their paychecks frozen, the county executive said. Among other things, he wants to use money from the tax-rate increase to provide a 3 percent pay hike to county employees, including police.

As Dooley explained the county's financial predicament, as he saw it, letters also were being delivered to the offices of the seven members of the County Council. Dooley's request will be formally presented to the council at next Tuesday.

Earlier, Dooley had advised Council chairman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, and vice-chairman Mike O'Mara, D-Florissant. Although Stenger could not be reached for comment, his initial public reaction appears to be against the idea.

Dooley will need four votes on the seven-member council. Although Democrats hold five of those seats, three will be up for re-election in 2012: Stenger, O'Mara and Councilwoman Kathleen Kelly Burkett, who also chairs the council's appropriations committee.

Dooley sidestepped questions about Stenger's apparent opposition.

But Dooley did object to any comparision of his proposal to his 2009 cut in the county's tax rate by 3.5 cents. That cut was in the county's debt-service tax rate, he said, and the money could not be used for the general-revenue needs that he's now highlighting.

"When we didn't need the money, we gave it back,'' Dooley said.

Now, he said, the county needs it.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.