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Dooley calls for regional approach, and possible funding, to maintain regional attractions

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 20, 2012 - St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley says he’s learned some lessons from last fall’s furor over his cost-cutting proposal to shut down some county parks.

Among them? “Getting people to understand that the county doesn’t have the revenue to continue all the services it’s had for the last 40 years,” Dooley said in an interview.

He added that his broader point is that there needs to be “more shared responsibility” around the region, and among its taxpayers, in paying for services that all enjoy – but are financed by a few.

“As a community, we need to look at how we fund recreational activities,” he said.

That's why he said he's receptive to a proposal to ask voters in the region to approve a regional sales tax to help maintain recreational offerings, including the area around the Gateway Arch.

Through a property tax for the Zoo-Museum District, St. Louis and St. Louis County taxpayers provide money for such regional attractions as the Zoo, the Missouri Botanical Garden and the St. Louis Art Museum.  In addition, county voters support the county parks, including the popular Creve Coeur Lake, Lone Elk, Queeny and Faust parks.

But many visitors to these attractions come from other counties in the region that don’t provide any of the money for upkeep and improvements.

Dooley said that needs to change.

‘’Everybody is using these facilities, everybody is not paying for them,” Dooley said. “If the region is going to grow as a whole, there needs to be shared responsibility.”

Dooley's comments came just weeks after he verbally tangled with St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann, who opposes the idea of a regional sales tax to improve the area around the Arch, and to improve local parks.

But Dooley's aim in the interview was to get beyond any disagreement with a particular area official, to talk about the broader regional discussion that Dooley contends needs to take place.

Dooley raised the prospect of a regional tax or funding mechanism that involves counties in the St. Louis metropolitan area, on both sides of the Mississippi River. That philosophy is behind a proposed regional sales tax.

Dooley then emphasized that he’s not pressing for a tax hike but believes there needs be a regional discussion about some way to broaden the base of who pays to maintain and upgrade such services.

“This is a conversation for the future. People need to be thinking about it,” he said.

His chief message, he continued, is that the current setup – “Everybody wants it, at no cost to them” – must end. St. Louis County, he emphasized, can no longer afford it. 

Dooley noted that the county owns 67 parks -- 47 of which are open to the public -- and 12,000 acres of park land. The maintenance costs keep rising. The swimming pool at the North County Recreation Complex, for example, will remain closed this summer because of needed repairs and possible reconstruction. The estimated cost is $900,000.

But the chief executive said his key message was about more than parks and pools.

"We want more partnerships,” said Dooley. “We’re all in this together. It can’t be that one-sided. I support anything that moves our community forward.”

Dooley emphasized that "it’s about investing in our services. If it’s good for the county, it’s good for the region.”

Regional sales tax for Arch, parks

A state Senate panel recently approved a bill to allow voters in the region to consider a proposed sales tax increase to pay for enhancements around the Arch grounds, improvements to area hiking and biking trails and maintenance for some area parks.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, would allow 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.

Roughly 60 percent of the proceeds would to the Great Rivers Greenway, while 40 percent would go to local parks.

The money going to the Great Rivers Greenway would be used for “enhancements” on the Arch grounds and developing trails throughout the region.

Richardson said in a telephone interview that the bill "may require some tweaking" before it is sent to Gov. Jay Nixon for approval.

"It's enabling legislation," Richardson said. "The reason that I allowed them to put that on my legislation is because the intent is the same: to let local people make decisions about local sales tax proposals.

“I thought it received a good, full hearing,” he continued. “I thought that hearing was productive and I know there's a lot of support for it in the Senate."

"The House will be willing to work with the Senate to try and find changes that need to be made to that bill,” he added.

“I think it's got a reasonable chance. It's really no different -- although the scale is obviously bigger -- it's really no different from any other piece of enabling legislation we pass. If we're going to be consistent philosophically, it's something we ought to give the St. Louis region the opportunity to decide."

Dooley agreed with him. “Given the right scenario and the right reasons,” the county executive said, “People will do the right thing.”

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.