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St. Louis Board of Aldermen asked to fast-track tax increases for police raises

St. Louis city police officers attempt to block demonstrators during an anti-Trump rally in downtown St. Louis in November 2016.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Two bills introduced Friday at the St. Louis Board of Aldermen would raise taxes to help pay city police officers more.

Two measures introduced at the St. Louis Board of Aldermen Friday would ask residents or local nonprofits to pay more in taxes to boost the salaries of the city’s police officers, and stem a tide of departures for better-paying departments.

The sponsor of the measures, Alderman Steve Conway, wants his colleagues to act quickly on the measures. The current police contract expires July 1, the same day that the St. Louis County Police Department unveils its new pay rates, and city police union officials are worried that the exodus of officers will only speed up without some movement toward higher wages.

Both measures would require voter approval. One asks for ahalf-cent sales tax increase, similar to Proposition P in St. Louis County, where voters in April approved $80 million for public safety. Another asks city voters to lift the payroll tax exemption on nonprofits and religious institutions. Groups with fewer than 20 employees would still not have to pay the tax.

“We have to make sure that we are compensating our police officers in a manner that’s similar to St. Louis County,” said Conway, D-8th Ward. “Secondly, we have to have the ability to assure the current men and women on the police department that they will be safe on the streets and that our resident will be safe because we will have an appropriate level of police presence here in St. Louis.”

Even though voters wouldn’t weigh in until November, Conway said if the Board of Aldermen acts by the middle of July that would mark a good-faith effort, even as the contract expires.

“Safety is the number-one priority of the residents here in the city of St. Louis. And historically, we’ve always seen them respond positively for police and fire,” he said.

Conway estimated the sales tax will bring in about $20 million a year, and the payroll tax about $12 million a year. He said either increase would raise enough money to boost salaries and hire more officers, and that he would recommend the Board of Aldermen only place one on the ballot.

“My personal preference is to go with the removal of the exemption,” Conway said, acknowledging that a sales tax increase would push the rate over 11 percent in some areas.

Balancing competing interests

Sgt. Heather Taylor, president of the Ethical Society of Police, the organization representing officers of color in the department, said there’s no doubt that officers need to be paid better. But she cautioned the city to think about how it raises the money.

“Hopefully it’s not something that’s going to come at a disadvantage for others, meaning that we’re not going to tax poor communities more,” she said Thursday night, at a forum on the process to select a new chief. “They’re already paying a lot of taxes there.”

Several large non-profits contacted by St. Louis Public Radio did not respond to requests for comment. Orvin Kimbrough, president and chief executive officer of the United Way of Greater St. Louis said in a statement that the agency is still evaluating the impact the payroll tax increase would have on the services it offers.

“If the plan moves forward, we will assess the full scope of these potential impacts on nonprofit agencies and the communities we serve, and as appropriate we will mobilize to ensure that our collective point of view is carefully considered,” Kimbrough said.

The St. Louis Police Officers Association said in a statement that it was pleased the board was taking some steps to boost pay for its members, especially after the Ways and Means committee earlier this month decided not to immediately add $6 million to the budget next year for raises.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.