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Earnings tax breezes to reauthorization, along with other city propositions

Charlene Jones, a longtime political and education strategist who managed the Prop 1 campaign, speaks to a cheerful crowd at St. Louis Public Schools' downtown headquarters after watching election results come in.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Charlene Jones, a longtime political and education strategist who managed the Prop 1 campaign, speaks to a cheerful crowd at St. Louis Public Schools' downtown headquarters after watching election results come in.

St. Louis voters easily reaffirmed the city's earnings tax, a solid victory for city leaders and a stinging defeat for retired financier Rex Sinquefield.

And city residents also approved several other propositions, including a $25 million bond issue and a property tax increase for St. Louis Public Schools.

With all of the city's precincts counted, St. Louis residents voted to reauthorize the 1 percent earnings tax with 72 percent of the vote. That's down from five years ago, when roughly 88 percent of voters approved the tax levied on people who live or work in the city.

“There has been a good week of news for city residents," said St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay in a statement. "First, NGA; now a resounding victory for Yes on E. City voters rejected a very dangerous gamble with our public safety and credit rating. The people who helped win tonight — as grassroots as you can get — are now poised to do even more great things.”

Five years ago, there wasn't an organized "no" campaign. This time, Sinquefield donated more than $2 million toward an opposition campaign. That paid for scores of television advertisements, mailers and signs — materials that were apparently not effective enough to significantly move the needle.

In a statement, NO on E Tax spokeswoman Stephanie Lewis said that "over 12,000 voters voiced their opposition to the status quo directly on the ballot."

"So, tomorrow begins the next phase of this campaign," Lewis said. " We will begin thoroughly examining city government to find inefficiencies and waste and make specific recommendations for phasing out the earnings tax without cutting police, fire, or vital city services. We will then work with city officials to begin the implementation."

Anne Schweitzer, the treasurer of the campaign supporting the earnings tax in St. Louis, said the campaign did bring up some good questions about the tax, especially about how the city taxes its poorest residents.

While proponents of keeping the earnings tax were outgunned financially, they barnstormed neighborhood meetings and provided some of their money toward the "yes" campaign. For instance, Slay, who counts Sinquefield as a major donor, donated about $100,000 to the "yes" campaign. State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, and St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones created radio advertisements urging a "yes" vote.

Jones reacted with a bit of glee to the election results:

"I think you had a billionaire pushing the wall on this as far as he could get it to go, using some very unethical language to convince voters," Schweizter said. "Voters have clearly seen through that."
Because of a voter-approved state law, St. Louis and Kansas City residents will have to vote again in five years on whether to reauthorize the earnings tax. Kansas City voters affirmed the earnings tax tonight with more than 70 percent of the vote.

City firefighters win

Meanwhile, St. Louis area voters also backed a $25 million bond issuance for capital needs projects. It passed with 82 percent of the vote. The St. Louis Fire Department will be the biggest beneficiary, receiving about $15 million for 10 new fire trucks, seven new ambulances, repairs to roofs and HVAC systems at some of the department's 36 fire houses, and a new roof and generator at fire department headquarters. "We really care about the city of St. Louis, and we are happy that the citizens agree with us to give us the opportunity to get the best equipment available so that we can continue to do the best job for the city of St. Louis," said union president Demetris Alfred.

Bonds for sewer district

St. Louis and St. Louis County voters approved propositions related to the Metropolitan Sewer District. The first would issue $900 million worth of bonds for wastewater infrastructure. The other would sort out storm water funding and service.

St. Louis Public Schools tax hike

St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams watches as early results come in showing strong support for a proposition to increase school funding in April 2016.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams watches as early results come in showing strong support for Proposition 1.

City school officials said the success of their75-cent property tax increase, which won more than 69 percent of the vote, showed that voters trust the system and the progress that it has made.

“The city of St. Louis has said to us again, they trust us,” Richard Gaines, a member of the district’s special administrative board who headed the Proposition 1 campaign, told a cheering crowd at the district’s downtown headquarters.

“They trust us to handle their money, and more important than their money, they trust us to handle their children. For that, we are all thankful.”

Superintendent Kelvin Adams said the money to be raised by the tax increase — about $28 million a year — will be shared after the first two years with charter schools in the city of St. Louis. He said the positive vote shows that St. Louis voters care about education.

“This is about citizens of this city saying education is important, and we're willing to pay for it,” Adams said.

St. Louis Public Schools staffers watch a television news update while waiting for results on Proposition 1 at district headquarters.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Schools staffers watch a television news update while waiting for results on Proposition 1 at district headquarters.

In its campaign, the district said the money would go for expanding early childhood education, increasing options for character and alternative education, improving safety and security and making salaries for teachers and other staff more competitive.

Gaines noted that the election “was not about 'if we don't win this, we don't survive.' It wasn't that kind of issue. This was an issue related to quality. We're into the quality-making business in this school system. We truly want it to be one of the top-performing school systems in this country that's an urban school system.”

And, he added, the vote showed that the district has shown its value to everyone in the city, not just parents.

“Not everybody who lives in this city has children that go to the school system,” Gaines said. “The majority of them don't. For us to get this kind of result says very simply to me they think we're doing something right.”

Voters also passed tax or bond proposals in these school districts: Jennings, Ladue, Maplewood Richmond Heights, Mehlville and Fort Zumwalt.

Split decision in Ferguson

Meanwhile, Ferguson officials got a mixed result on Tuesday when a sales tax increase passed, but a property tax increase failed. 

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III answers question from reporters following Tuesday's city council meeting.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III answers question from reporters following a recent city council meeting.

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 ballot.The sales tax proposal would boost the city’s sales tax rate by 0.5 percent. The property tax item would have increased the city’s property tax rate by 40 cents per $100 assessed value.

The sales tax passed with nearly 69 percent of the vote. While the property tax item received about 57 percent, it needed at least 66.67 percent to go into effect.

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 month, 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.

But Seewood’s memo said that, if only the sales tax increase passed, the city would have to cut about 19 positions – compared to 10 positions if both tax hikes passed. The memo said the city would have to cut about seven positions in the Ferguson Police Department.

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III said city leaders would have to look "at tightening our belts and look at a few options we have to keep service levels going.

"Obviously, we have an August election that may also be an option to going back out for some sort of tax levy," Knowles said. "But these are obviously conversations that we’re going to be having over the next couple of months with our budget sessions. Right now, by having at least one of the taxes, that’s going to keep us being able to move forward to a large extent. [But it's] obviously recognizing that there’s still a sizable gap that we’re going to have to find a way to fill the whole."

Asked how Tuesday's results would affect the city's ability to comply the federal consent decree, Knowles said there are aspects of the agreement that require the city to have "additional oversight, additional training, additional activities by our police officers."

And obviously, if we have less officers, less staff and less ability to meet those demands — it may be difficult or impossible to actually meet them," Knowles said. "Right now with us going one for two here, we’re not really sure precisely where that leaves us staffing wise. And obviously there’s some things we’re going to be looking at as far as grants and other cooperative opportunities to save money on these consent decree items. We’re not ready to say at this point what exactly it would mean for us. This will all be looked at as part of the larger budget conversation."

Ferguson also held three races for city council that were won by Linda Lipka, Heather Robinett and Keith Kallstrom. Lipka and Kallstrom were the only people to file for their respective seats, but they did have write-in candidates running active campaigns. Robinett defeated Bob Hudgins and Annette Jenkins to capture the Ward 2 council seat.

Ballot shortages

St. Louis County’s municipal elections were marred by widespread ballot shortages. Around 7:30 p.m., the Missouri Court of Appeals extending voting hours to 9 p.m. — but some polling places had already shut down for the day.

St. Louis Board of Elections director Eric Fey said that any ballots cast after 7 p.m. as a result of the court order would not be counted Tuesday night. He added that he didn’t know when provisional ballots would be added to the tallies.

The provisional ballots could matter in cities with close mayoral and city council races. In Berkeley, incumbent Mayor Ted Hoskins defeated Babatunde Deinbo by 38 votes. That north St. Louis County municipality was one of the places that ran out of ballots on Tuesday.

Here are other notable St. Louis County results:

  • In Pine Lawn, Terry Epps bested Kellie Shelton by five votes.
  • In Richmond Heights, Jim Thomson upended incumbent Mayor James Beck by 104 votes. Polling places in that city also ran out of ballots earlier in the day.
  • And in Kirkwood, Tim Griffin easily bested two other candidates to succeed Arthur McDonnell as mayor.
Proposition B

St. Louis County and many municipalities there and in St. Charles County were asked whether or not to retain the existing sales tax on out of state and person to person vehicle sales. The effort passed in the county and overwhelmingly in the municipalities.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.
Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.
Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.