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St. Louis County Council chairman bullish about Arch sales tax proposal

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 4, 2012 - The chairman of the St. Louis County Council praised a plan to allow voters to decide whether to increase sales taxes to improve the Arch grounds and provide a funding stream for area parks, including those in St. Louis County.

“It would help us with some improvements in our parks system down the road,” said Councilman Michael O’Mara, D-Florissant, in an interview with reporters Tuesday. “I think it’s a good project for downtown St. Louis and both of us need to pass it for it to succeed. So, I’d be in favor of something like that.”

Earlier this year, the Missouri House passed legislation to permit the St. Louis Board of Aldermen and the county councils in St. Louis County and St. Charles County to put a sales tax increase on the ballot. As the bill is currently written, about 60 percent of the proceeds would to the Great Rivers Greenway, while 40 percent would go to local parks. Funds going to Great Rivers Greenway would be used for “enhancements” on the Arch grounds and developing trails throughout the region.

A public-private partnership, The City + The Arch + The River 2015 is leading efforts to renovate the Arch grounds by the monument's 50th birthday in 2015. Most attention has focused on federal and private funds for the $578 million project.

The bill still must jump through plenty of hoops in Jefferson City before the St. Louis County Council can decide whether to put a sales tax measure on the ballot. Once on the ballot, proponents of the measure – such as Tom Irwin of Civic Progress – have said that approval by St. Louis County voters is critical for the plan to work. Two of the three jurisdictions -- St. Louis, St. Louis County and St. Charles County -- would have to approve the tax for it to go into effect.

Not everybody has been enthusiastic about the proposal. St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann said in a statement to the Beacon that the plan amounts to a “bailout” of the federal government. Proponents have said that it's not crucial for St. Charles voters to approve the plan, although such a move would result in less revenue.

St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley – who said Tuesday that the proposal was a “wonderful idea” – bristled at Ehlmann’s argument. He also noted that St. Charles County residents don’t pay taxes to support the Zoo-Museum District even though they benefit from free admission to the St. Louis Zoo or St. Louis Art Museum.

“They don’t pay any taxes for the zoo, do they?" said Dooley, responding to a question about Ehlmann's position and whether it’s appropriate for local taxpayers to fund a national entity. “So one could easily say why are the people of St. Charles using the Zoo? Why are they using the Art Museum? Or the History Museum? Why?”

O’Mara said that people around the country identify the Arch with St. Louis. And people here are very committed to parks as an important regional amenity.

“That’s what attracts people to the region," said O'Mara. "The No. 1 concern of people is safety and then their parks system. That’s what the people want here in the region.”

In the meantime, a Missouri Senate committee is slated to hold a hearing on the bill this afternoon. It’s possible that aspects of the proposal could change if it ever makes to Gov. Jay Nixon’s desk.

Farmers’ market changes pass

Meanwhile, the council passed without opposition an overhaul of farmers’ market regulations. Market managers had complained that the current permits are too expensive and inconvenient.

Among other things, the ordinance reconfigures the cost and structure of permits. It also bars live animals, such as dogs from being a certain distance from where food is stored or placed up for sale and prompts markets to provide hand-washing and toilet facilities.

The ordinance still needs Dooley’s signature to go into effect.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.