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On the April 5 ballot: Ferguson tax hikes loom large over city's financial future

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III listens to public comments on Saturday during a public hearing at the Ferguson Community Center.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III listens to public comments on Saturday during a public hearing at the Ferguson Community Center.

Ferguson residents will consider raising taxes next week to fill a big budgetary gap, a potentially critical decision for the beleaguered city.

Before the city approved a consent decree with the federal government, members of the Ferguson City Council placed a sales tax increase and a property tax hike on the April 5 ballot. The sales tax proposal would boost the city’s sales tax rate by 0.5 percent. The property tax item would increase the city’s property tax rate by 40 cents per $100 assessed value.

Ferguson City Manager De’Carlon Seewood noted last year that the city was facing a roughly $2.8 million budget deficit. In a memo released last week, Seewood wrote that Ferguson could climb out of its hole with a combination of tax increases, benefit and wage reductions, and making the city part of the county sales pool.

“If all revenues are realized and the expenditure cuts implemented, we have the potential of erasing the $2.9 million budget shortfall,” Seewood wrote in his memo, which can be read here. “However, if both tax levies are unsuccessful, the city would have to institute a 23 percent across the board reduction in force which equals 32 [full time employees]; with such a large reduction in employee force there would have to be a comparable reduction in services.”

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III said getting the propositions passed “would be a difficult hurdle to overcome.” But he added that city leaders have made it clear to the residents that the tax increases “are extremely important to continuing the level of service that they expect out of the city of Ferguson.”  

Adrian Shropshire, who has lived in Ferguson for 26 years, speaks during Tuesday night's public hearing.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Adrian Shropshire, who has lived in Ferguson for 26 years, speaks during a recent public hearing of the Ferguson City Council.

“Right now, the city has a financial hole that we’re in that exists with or without the Justice Department lawsuit or decree,” said Knowles before the council approved the consent decree. “To be successful as a city, we’re going to have those tax increases. We’re going to be working with and have been working with a number of citizen groups to get that passed.”

The tax increases came up from time-to-time during debate over the consent decree. Some residents like Adrian Shropshire expressed support for the proposals as a way to stave off financial ruin for the city.

“If we don’t pass the tax, you can forget about the DOJ,” Shropshire said. “You could forget about Ferguson. Because there won’t be nothing left. The bank is running on zero. And I hear there’s a 50/50 [opinion] on the tax. Well, I don’t know. I’m ready to pay more tax to save our city.” 

Ferguson resident Nick Kasoff, left, is one of the many landlords who've spoken out against O'Mara's bill.
Credit File photo by Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Ferguson resident Nick Kasoff, left, is a vocal opponent of the proposed tax hikes.

Critics of Ferguson’s city government have expressed skepticism about the tax proposals. Nick Kasoff, for instance, contends the city’s elected leaders have been irresponsible with their spending over the past few years.

"They are opaque about their finances. And they have the same leaders that have been there all along," said Kasoff, who ran against Knowles for a city council seat in the 2000s. "So as far as I’m concerned, until we have some transparency and some openness – and hopefully some change in leadership as well – I don’t support any sort of tax increase at all.”

He also criticized previous budgets that contained large amounts of fine revenue.

“What we’ve got is a system which has abused people for many, many years,” Kasoff said. “And we’re going to turn around now and place the bill for reforming those abuses on the very people who were abused. I think that’s morally wrong. And so, both on practical and moral grounds, I think opposing this tax increase is the right thing to do.”

The sales tax increase could pass with a majority of votes. St. Louis County Election Board Democratic director Eric Fey said Ferguson officials certified that the property tax question would require a two-third majority to pass.

Races for city council

Ferguson’s elections coincide with dozens of other contests in St. Louis County’s municipalities. Residents in the county’s towns and cities will elect mayors and members of their governmental bodies. Because of the problems that have surfaced in Ferguson, that is the only contest we are looking at. The sample ballot for offices and issues is available through the St. Louis County website.

Zeke Davis-Isgrig, right, Dennis Bailey, center, and Isaiah Davis-Isgrig hold up signs during the public comment portion of Tuesday's meeting.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Zeke Davis-Isgrig, right, Dennis Bailey, center, and Isaiah Davis-Isgrig hold up signs during the public comment portion of a recent Ferguson City Council meeting.

Three Ferguson city council seats are up for grabs on the April 5 ballot. But it’s fair to say that these contests are more under the radar than last year, when the races garnered unprecedented media attention.

Part of that is by design: Unlike last year, only one contest – Ward 2 – features a contested race on the ballot. Linda Lipka was the only person to file in Ward 1, while Ferguson Councilman Keith Kallstrom was the only filer in Ward 3. (It should be noted there are write-in candidates seeking those posts.) Three candidates are running for seat being vacated by Councilman Dwayne James are Bob Hudgins, Annette Jenkins and Heather Robinett.

Robinett is an area manager for AT&T. Her family moved to Ferguson in 2004, and they became heavily involved in their neighborhood organization. For instance, Robinett's family founded and runs the Old Ferguson West Community Garden.

She said she’s hoping to bring a close attention to detail to the council.

“My level of commitment to what I do, that’s what I hope is consistent,” Robinett said. “That’s what I hope people see. I’m not out there trying to make headlines. I’m not out there trying to grab attention. I’m the worker bee. I want to work with the residents. I want to work with council. I want to work the businesses. There’s a lot that we need to address together. And I’m willing to be that person.”

Among other things, Robinett said she wants to reduce the amount of vacant homes throughout Ferguson. She also wants to make sure community policing is implemented throughout the city. But she emphasized that the two tax proposals have to pass to ward off major financial challenges.

“We need the policing staffed – I think the minimum is 52 police officers,” Robinett said. “We need to have that many police officers in order to put in place this community policing model. That’s probably my biggest personal goal is to see that succeed – and then that becomes the example that other communities look at for how to police effectively and constitutionally.”

Hudgins is making his second bid for the Ward 2 council seat. He said he wants to make sure city leaders don’t “fudge” the implementation of the consent decree. He also wants to improve the city’s transportation infrastructure and deal more effectively with vacant properties. And he’s wary of the tax increase proposals.

“We believe they’re trying to make the citizens pay for their sins,” Hudgins said. “Where’s the accountability? Where’s the responsibility? Basically, it feels like we have the misfortune of being their residents. And they’re trying to pass along their maleficence onto us. … We believe we need to make them feel the pain, make them accept some accountability. They need to see that they can’t do this and then ask for a way out of it.”

Hudgins said he was inspired to seek elected office by the youthful protest movement that emerged after Michael Brown’s shooting death. And he wants to see a transformation of the city’s police department.

“We cannot have any more Darren Wilsons – that’s where this sprang from,” Hudgins said. “We cannot have police officers who can’t handle situations on Canfield Drive without somebody being shot six times. [We need] an absolute focus on getting police people we can who want to work here.”

Jenkins did not return several messages seeking comment for this story.

Note: Write-in campaigns are being organized in Wards 1 and 3.

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