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Proposition P's passage spurs relief - and action - for its beneficiaries

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 4, 2013 - Much like a river itself, Proposition P has taken a meandering path. The sales tax increase had to weave its way through the General Assembly, be placed on the ballot by local legislatures and receive affirmative votes in St. Louis and St. Louis County.

When all the votes were tallied, proponents of the proposition got what they wanted: voter approval in St. Louis and, by a narrower margin, St. Louis County. The 3/16ths of one-cent sales tax increase is set to provide tens of millions of dollars annually for local parks, regional trails and – perhaps most notably – improvements around the Gateway Arch grounds.

Now that the tax increase is in the books for the next 20 years, the question now is more straightforward: What's next?

The answer? A lot.

The various beneficiaries of the tax -- which is expected to generate about $31.4 million a year -- are expected to start receiving funding later this year. Multiple people interviewed by the Beacon on Wednesday said that tax’s collection would begin on July 1. However, a Department of Revenue spokesman said on Thursday that the collection of the tax should go into effect on Oct. 1.

“Unless there was a specific date written into the body of the proposal that postponed it to a later date, it should go into effect on Oct. 1, 2013,” Department of Revenue spokesman Ted Farnen said in an e-mail. “The sponsoring governmental entities (in this case St. Louis City and County) don’t officially notify the Department of Revenue about the sales tax change until after the election, so I doubt that we have the official paperwork yet.”

When the money does come in, about 40 percent – or about $12.56 million – of Prop P's funding would go to local parks. The rest of the 60 percent – about $18.84 million – will go to Great Rivers Greenway. 

Half of GRG's funding will go toward projects for CityArchRiver, a public-private partnership responsible for improving the Gateway Arch grounds in time for the monument’s 50th birthday. The other half will be used to fund construction of Great Rivers Greenway’s priorities. That includes the “River Ring,” a set of interconnecting trails and greenways.

There's plenty to do. And the people in charge say they are ready to go to work.

"Truly in this day and this economy, unless you’re willing to compromise and work together as a partnership, it’s really difficult to get anything done," said Great Rivers Greenway executive director Susan Trautman earlier this week. "And I know the voters in our region know that and they respect our track record and stewardship. And we’re really excited about making St. Louis a better place to live."

Building up a monument

The passage of the sales tax was a critical element of the plan to rejuvenate the Arch grounds.

Maggie Hales, the executive director of CityArchRiver 2015, told the Beacon on Wednesday that funding from Prop P will primarily fund safety and accessibility improvements for walkways, bus drop offs and lighting. Those improvements, she said, will appear in and around the Old Courthouse, Kiener Plaza, the park grounds and the Gateway area.

Great Rivers Greenway will meet with its financial advisers to develop a plan to issue about $90 million worth of bonds, she said. Trautman said the first step will be putting out a request for qualification to issue the bonds.

“So we’ll be doing that shortly and that process should take us about three to six months to finalize so that we can get the money in,” Trautman said in an interview on Wednesday. “And then concurrently we’ll be working with CityArchRiver for the phasing of the projects and the construction schedule.”

Elements of the CityArchRiver plan relying on money from Prop P should begin construction early next year, Hales said.

“If we can employ them sooner, then we will. We’ll employ them as soon as they’re available,” Hales said. “We’ll employ them as soon as it fits within the construction schedule. This is all pretty carefully mapped out. All the construction is phased so that it’s done in a way that’s least disruptive to the area because this is an area where people work and live and walk and enjoy.

“And it needs to be phased because we can’t have the construction teams stepping on one another and getting in the way,” she added. “So it’s all being phased carefully.”

That doesn’t mean that aspects of the CityArchRiver project – which Hales said is expected to be completed in late October 2015 – won’t be progressing this year.

Starting in August, she said, the Missouri Department of Transportation will be handling improvements at two intersections slightly north of the Arch grounds.

One intersection is at Washington Avenue and Memorial Drive at the northwest corner of the park grounds. And the other is at Lumiere Place next to Laclede’s Landing. Those two intersections are already fully funded, she added.

Then, she said, MoDOT will move south along the Memorial Drive corridor to do the rest of the work, which includes a park over the Highway 70. Hales said CityArchRiver will then use private funding to build landscaping on the park, commonly referred to as the “lid.”

Trautman also her group is fleshing out the designs to refurbish Leonor K. Sullivan along the riverfront, which is also funded without Prop P money. She said that project should go out to bid in January 2014, with an expected completion date in 2015.

Private funding will be used for numerous parts of the CityArchRiver project, including a reconfigured museum with new exhibits. Hales told reporters on Tuesday that her organization is “on target with our fundraising goals to date.”

“And we expect to have about $100 million of private money in the bank by May 1. So that’s proceeding well,” Hales said. “And then we’ll roll out a further campaign for the additional funds through next summer and fall.”

A citizens’ advisory committee to monitor the CityArchRiver project is on the boards. Trautman's committee has received 285 applications for 30 slots. The demand was so high, she said, that they decided to include more people on the committee than initially planned.

“There were so many great people,” said Trautman, adding that those who aren’t chosen will be showed opportunities to contribute. “But we’ve actually narrowed it down to about 42. We wanted to make sure that we had a good demographic, geographic disbursement and that we had people with passion and commitment. It’s just a really super group of people.”

Hales said the people on the council will be "from all over the region – including outside of the city and county -- because visitors from Illinois and outlying counties are going to come to the Arch.”

“And they’re going to help us with developing way-finding and parking and making the visitor amenities better,” Hales said. “And they’ll help decide what kind of programming we need to have on the Arch grounds, and help us figure out how to maintain a long-term operation of maintenance for the project to keep it fresh and alive in future years.”

In the loop

Tuesday’s passage of Prop P also means quicker construction of the so-called “River Ring,” an interconnected series of greenways and trails. Trautman noted on Tuesday that it could eventually allow somebody to connect from the Katy Trail to the St. Louis riverfront by bike or foot.

Trautman told the Beacon earlier this year that if Prop P failed, it would have complicated her agency’s priorities. She said that GRG’s five-year capital program consists of “$135 million worth of projects that people really want to see happen in their communities.” But, she added, the agency had only about $55 million over the next five years to use for those projects.

She said on Wednesday that her group won’t see disbursements of Prop P funds until the fourth quarter, which means "there won’t be a lot of money coming in during 2013." But she added that the impending funding gives her group “the opportunity to go through our capital improvement planning process, which we do every summer and then prioritize the projects that will go out the door.”

“What’s really exciting for us is that if the tax hadn’t passed, we would have had to scale back to maybe one to three projects at most. Now we’ll probably able to do a dozen or more getting them moving,” she said. “So we will meet with our board of directors. We will go through the projects on the planning list and prioritize them. We’ll look for critical connections that are really important for us.”

Other priorities include greenway maintenance, including the possibility of getting volunteers to help maintain parts of the network. She also the additional money will allow her group to advance its Gateway bike plan.

In addition to the River Ring, GRG’s share of the Prop P funds will go toward  local programs promoting the conservation of natural resources, physical activity and healthy living.

“We don’t duplicate services – as you know, we’re a small staff,” Trautman said. “[We] help fund other organizations like TrailNet, the River Des Peres Watershed Coalition or some of the local parks and recreation departments that will provide programming on our greenways. Whether it’s related to health and fitness, nature and the outdoors – we’re looking for programs that get people outdoors and give them the access to nature and gets them engaged in really great physical opportunities.”

“Every year we have been funding, we’ll be able to do more of that,” she added.

Influx for parks

The July 1 starting date means that St. Louis, St. Louis County and a commission that provides grants to municipal parks in the county will receive their cut of the proceeds later this year.

St. Louis County’s parks will receive $6 million, a municipal parks commission for the county will take in $4 million and St. Louis’ parks will get about $2.5 million.

The directors of park departments in the city and the county told the Beacon in March that they plan to use their share of proceeds for long-delayed maintenance improvements.

Gary Bess, the director of the St. Louis Parks Department, told the Beacon last week that the city has nearly $170 million of capital improvement needs.

While he stressed that the money from Prop P won’t fix everything, he said his department will “address the most critical capital needs.” That could include, he said, broken sidewalks, nonfunctioning water fountains and inoperable bathrooms.

Tom Ott, the interim director for St. Louis County’s parks department, told the Beacon on Wednesday that his agency won’t get funds until the last quarter of 2013.

“We do have projects in the current year budget,” Ott said. “We’ve got about $750,000 in projects this year to make repairs of things throughout the county. And then we’ve identified a list for other things to be done as well.”

The additional funds, he said, will be used to “make improvements for things we already have.”

“I’ve got 77 picnic shelters, 87 restrooms, 99 athletic fields and 41 playgrounds,” Ott said. “And we’re going to use this to do a lot of repairs and replacements in the things we already have. Our department is 63 years old this year. And we were primarily built out in the '50s, '60s and '70s. So a lot of our stuff is 40 years old and older. We’re going to look at the age, the safety of the equipment or the condition of the equipment and prioritize our projects.”

Status quo in St. Charles?

One thing that’s not likely to change is St. Charles County’s reluctance to put the 3/16th of one-cent sales tax up for a vote.

The St. Charles County Council declined to put the issue on the ballot. And Council Chairman Terry Hollander, R-St. Charles, told the Beacon that the measure’s passage isn’t likely to change anything in his home county.

One reason the St. Charles County Council opposed a vote on the proposition, Hollander said, was that it would have cost $150,000 to $200,000 to put it up for vote.

“In all honesty, it’s pretty much the same situation,” Hollander said. “For us to put it on the ballot, it would still require that amount of money. It doesn’t make any difference – unless, of course, you waited 18 months from now when you had a large election.”

Besides money, Hollander said that the council’s decision reflected its view that it was “very unlikely to pass here in St. Charles County.”

“And you know, part of it is that the county would be supplementing the funding that the federal government ought to be taking care of -– which is the Arch. It is a federal park. I don’t understand the thinking on why we want to ask the surrounding counties to fund a national park,” he said, adding that no Illinois counties were involved in the proposition.

“In all honesty, I know that part of the appeal was if it passed, some of the money would go to the Arch. But a lot of that would come back to your own park system. And that’s fine thinking.”

“But the truth of the matter is, if our parks needed the money – we would put our own parks tax up and keep all of it. Right? Why would we want to pass something where we would be sharing the money?”

Still, both Hales and Trautman told reporters on Tuesday that they hope St. Charles eventually decided to approve the tax. Voters in St. Charles approved in 2000 a 1/10th of one-cent sales tax increase, which established Great Rivers Greenway and provided funding for parks in St. Louis, St. Louis County and St. Charles County.

“If they decide they want to do it, certainly they can do that. And we would love to see the district be whole as well,” Trautman said. “We still have the 1/10th of a cent that we’ll be working on in St. Charles County. We’ll still connect the region.”

“I don’t have a crystal ball,” said Hales, when asked on Tuesday whether the successful outcome might lead St. Charles torethink its decision. “I’d like to think that it would. We’re moving ahead and we’d love to have St. Charles County. And if we get them, that would be great. If don’t, we’re going to move ahead.”

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

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