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Proposition P wins handily in St. Louis, barely in St. Louis County

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Voters in St. Louis and St. Louis County approved Proposition P, a 3/16ths of one-cent sales tax increase to fund improvement around the Gateway Arch, local parks and regional trails.

In the city of St. Louis, Prop P passed with 67.2 percent in favor and 32.78 percent of voters disapproving.

In St. Louis County, after an early lead, Prop P found its support slipping dramatically. But with almost all the county vote in, the ballot measure squeaked through with 52.75 percent of the vote.

Opposition from the county GOP appeared to help galvanize the opposition. The supporters included most of the region's major business leaders, many of whom lean Republican, as well as Democratic officials.

The venue served as Election Day headquarters for Proposition P, a 3/16ths of one-cent sales tax increase that passed in St. Louis and St. Louis County.

After most of the county's results were in, supporters declared victory at the Forest Park Visitors Center in St. Louis. Walter Metcalfe -- an attorney with Bryan Cave who has spent the last few years trying to assemble the funds to improve the Arch grounds -- said the result was about "the future of St. Louis."

"The future's secure, just so long as we continue to invest in ourselves and not pander to those who want to take us backward," Metcalfe said. "And we're on it tonight. We're on our way."

The tax hike is expected to raise roughly $31 million a year for improvements to the Gateway Arch grounds, the regional Great Rivers Greenway trails and greenways, and for city and county parks. A breakdown of the money includes:

  • About $9.4 million, dedicated to improvements around the Arch grounds. Those funds would be administered by Great Rivers Greenway.
  • Roughly $9.42 million for Great Rivers Greenway to complete its “River Ring” of interconnected trails throughout the St. Louis region.
  • $6 million for St. Louis County parks.
  • $4 million for parks within St. Louis County municipalities, which would be distributed through the Municipal Grant Commission of St. Louis County.
  • About $2.5 million for parks in St. Louis.

Proponents of the initiative see the sales tax increase as a way to provide predictable and regular funding for a project to make the Arch's grounds more attractive. Boosters say the tax increase will go a long way toward enlivening a regional icon for residents and visitors alike.
“This was a watershed day and the voters approving this initiative means that we have $90 million right away to spend on improvements for safety and accessibility,” said Maggie Hales, the executive director of CityArchRiver 2015. “So it’s a great, great day for the project.”

The tax increase will also provide more funding for Great Rivers Greenway, which was set up in 2000 to create an interconnected system of greenways, parks and trails. And GRG executive director Susan Trautman said Tuesday’s results will make it easier for her organization to “connect the region."

“We’re really excited, for example, to connect Grant’s Trail to the River Des Peres to Jefferson Barracks,” Trautman said. “You’ll be able to ride your bike from Jefferson Barracks all the way to the Katy Trail. So we’re going to be able to get this done in a lot faster time. And we’re looking forward to everybody’s support in doing that.”

Trautman added that stronger parks could in turn lead to more jobs in the St. Louis region.

“We’ll make St. Louis a better place to live,” Trautman said. “And I think our voters and supporters said that today. They love their parks. They love this region. They want to be a part of making change. And we’re going to do it."

Before the votes were tallied on Tuesday, St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley said the proceeds from Prop P would constitute a “huge boost” for the county’s sprawling park system.

The directors of the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County parks systems told the Beacon earlier that the money from Prop P would be spent on long-delayed maintenance projects.

“It’s over a number of years. So this is going to help us out in … one time capital improvements for some areas,” Dooley said. “So it’s going to be a great boost – there’s no question about it. There’s a lot of maintenance deferred in the parks that we had for a number of years. So now we get to the point now we get some of those things done.”

Still, not everybody supported the proposal.

Some members of the Board of Aldermen – such as Alderman Antonio French, D-21st Ward – said funding for parks was not high on his constituents’ priority list, especially when crime and infrastructure problems still lingered.

Alderman Scott Ogilvie, I-24th Ward, contended that the CityArchRiver plan is too expensive, and that using a local sales tax to help out something on federal land set a bad precedent.

In a telephone interview, Ogilvie -- who said he was strongly supportive of more funding to Great Rivers Greenway -- said the results didn’t surprise him. He noted that turnout in both jurisdictions was low: Roughly 12.5 percent in St. Louis and a little over 15.5 percent in St. Louis County.

“One lesson is that you’ll always do better when you put some issue up in a low turnout election,” Ogilvie said. “Because it helps you control who shows up to vote. That’s just kind of a general thing that everybody knows.”

Ogilvie said that he hoped that St. Louis residents would start serious discussions about other tough issues facing the city. That, he said, includes a conversation about what to do about Interstate 70 running through downtownor building a more robust mass transit system.

“People like parks and it’s not surprising that this passed,” Ogilvie said. “But a lot of my criticism was based on is that there’s really other important things that might be a harder sell to voters. I would put public transportation, building a street car network really high on that list. There’s stuff that we still need to do, even if it’s a tougher sell.”

Prop P "is going to do some good things, some things I think are kind of marginal,” he added. “I think the benefit may not be as high as it was sold as. But there are high-impact projects out there. And so the question is how do we have a conversation with the public about setting those priorities? And what does our leadership look like to go sell those high-impact projects to the public."

Hales said that Tuesday's vote could be a bellweather for public infrastructure projects around the country.

“I do think it could be a model,” Hales said. “In a lot of areas of public infrastructure, the old methods of relying on government largess are just not working anymore because of the state of budgets in government. And there’s less money to go around. So creative ways of putting together private money and private interest with public money and government funding is a great, great way to really push forward and build creative projects we want to build.”

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