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Chesterfield Mayor's Secession Talk Raises Eyebrows — And Faces Long, Long Odds

/ Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio

(Updated on Wednesday at 4 p.m.)

The mayor of Chesterfield is sticking by his threat for his city to secede from St. Louis County, contending that his city is fed up with a lack of progress on changing the county’s sales tax distribution system. 

But St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley has dismissed the threat, calling Chesterfield Mayor Bob Nation’s comments “over the top.”

At issue is St. Louis County’s system for distributing a 1 percent countywide sales tax. That’s the tax that gets spread out to the county’s cities to pay for an array of public services.

Municipalities are split into two categories: point-of-sale cities and pool cities. For the most part, point-of-sale cities get to keep more of their sales tax revenue. Pool cities are generally more residential, although the category also includes commercially-rich municipalities, such as Webster Groves and University City. (Click here to read a 2011 article that explains the complex system.)

Chesterfield was a pool city when it incorporated in the 1980s. That was before it experienced a retail growth spurt, including the creation of Chesterfield Commons and two outlet malls. As a result, city leaders have been trying to change state law. The city wants to become either a point-of-sale city and keep more of its sales tax revenue, or reduce the amount of sales tax revenue it gives up every year.

Those efforts have gone nowhere. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reportedthat Nation suggested during Monday’s Chesterfield City Council meeting that his city should considering leaving St. Louis County for St. Charles County.

Nation reiterated his frustration during a Tuesday interview with St. Louis Public Radio. He said the sales tax distribution is “becoming an increasingly onerous system as the days and months and years go by.” He said the current system makes it difficult for his city to pay for police protection and other services.

“And as much as we’ve tried and tried and tried to work through the legislature and everything else, it seems like one solution would be to secede from St. Louis County and therefore we wouldn’t be subject to all of their taxes that they take from us,” Nation said.

He added that if the situation doesn’t change, his city would have “no alternative but to consider looking into other avenues that might be open.” And that’s not just limited to joining St. Charles County.

“I know St. Charles County was mentioned. But if we were to secede from St. Louis County, I haven’t looked at all of the numbers, but I think that we have the financial wherewithal to sustain ourselves as a separate county,” Nation said. “If it was more efficient to become a party of an already existing county such as St. Charles, that would be another alternative to consider.”

Dooley dismissed Nation’s comments. He said that if Chesterfield gave less of its sales tax revenue to the distribution system, it would hurt other municipalities. 

Credit / Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley is not enthused about Chesterfield's threat to succeed from St. Louis County.

“I think it’s a little bit over the top,” Dooley said. “I think Chesterfield’s a part of St. Louis County. If [Nation] has some issues with St. Louis County, we need to discuss them in an intelligent way that’s open to dialogue. We’re willing to do that. But seceding? I think it’s unacceptable.”

He added that Chesterfield made a “vow” to become a pool city when it became a municipality.

“I think when he said that, it was probably some of his frustration with the conversation,” Dooley said. “But I think the idea of seceding from St. Louis County to St. Charles County, I think that’s unacceptable for St. Louis County and Chesterfield residents as well.”

Ehlmann is "flattered," but not holding his breath

For his part, St. Charles Executive Steve Ehlmann is not holding his breath for Chesterfield to move into his county.  

Credit Jason Rosenbaum/St. Louis Public Radio
St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann says there is essentially no chance Chesterfield will join his county.

In an interview on Wednesday, Ehlmann said the process makes that scenario nearly impossible. For one thing, Ehlmann doubts the St. Louis County Council would place a Chesterfield secession question up for a countywide vote. And even if it does, he’s not optimistic such a question would pass.

“I don’t know if I’m an expert on politics in St. Louis County, but I know that if the city of St. Peters was trying to secede and join St. Louis County, we’d fight like hell to keep them,” Ehlmann said.

Still, Ehlmann said he’s “flattered that they would want to come and join us.” And he understands why: St. Charles County doesn’t have a countywide sales tax distribution system. He said Nation’s statement was provocative, but it got people interested enough to report on Chesterfield’s push to change the sales tax system.

“Out here and in the rest of the state, you basically get to eat what you kill,” said Ehlmann. “If you have a big mall in your city, you get to keep all the revenue. You don’t have to share it with anybody else. And of course, this is what it’s all about.”

Ehlmann has some sympathy for Chesterfield. On the one hand, he said the tax distribution system would eventually offer “no incentive for the makers to continue to do what it is that they’re doing.”

But he also noted that Chesterfield “didn’t feel guilty about taking St. Louis County’s sales tax revenue” to help the Chesterfield Valley after the Flood of 1993.

“So now, the shoe’s kind of on the other foot,” Ehlmann said. “St. Louis County is taking their money and redistributing it more equally within the county. There’s a bit of hypocrisy there.”

In other St. Louis County Council news:

  • Councilman Mike O'Mara, D-Florissant, shelved his bill that would require landlords in unincorporated St. Louis County to get a license. O'Mara said that he would meet with interested parties to craft a new bill in the coming weeks.
  • A number of speakers during the council's public forum sounded off about animal control policies. That came under focus last week after Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, said that Dooley overstated that the euthanization rate would drop with the construction of a new county animal shelter.One of the people who spoke during the comment period was St. Louis Blues player David Backes, who started a charity to help animals.
Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.