ST. LOUIS COUNTY • Raises for police officers. More two-man cars. In-car and body cameras. More training. And more police accountability.
Those are among the benefits supporters say a half-cent sales tax increase will bring to police departments throughout St. Louis County should voters approve Proposition P on the April 4 ballot.
Of the estimated $80 million it would generate annually, about $46 million would go to St. Louis County — the police, the prosecutor and the corrections department. The remainder would be distributed among the county’s 90 municipalities, based on population.
Opponents are not sold. They argue that Proposition P would mean economic hardship. No accountability. Bigger government. Reinforcement of bad policing. And manipulation.
They say county leaders should find money elsewhere, or approach voters with a better-developed request. Two top county officials — County Executive Steve Stenger and Police Chief Jon Belmar — have led the charge for Prop P.
“If you look at any poll over the last five years, the No. 1 issue is public safety,” Stenger said. “People want to know, ‘Are our children going to be safe?’”
Belmar said the measure would allow him to add about 110 officers to his roster of about 890, which he said could be “transformational.” County police patrol areas with about a third of the county’s population. About $14 million of the $80 million would come from sales tax receipts in unincorporated portions of the county.
The St. Louis County prosecuting attorney’s office is projected to receive about $2 million, and about $1 million will be given to the county’s corrections department, Stenger said. Corrections would use the money for more staff, wages and better equipment, Stenger said.
St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The St. Louis County Police Association estimates that it will cost $11 million for the first year of raises it wants to see for officers. The group has endorsed Prop P, but the union’s president, Joe Patterson, declined to comment.
Former county police chief Ron Battelle is the treasurer for STL Citizens for Safety, which is promoting Proposition P. Elizabeth Snyder, the widow of slain St. Louis County police Officer Blake Snyder, is another supporter, saying on social media that better training and equipment will improve police accountability. “In the long run, it would save lives and the one-half of 1 percent is worth it,” she said.
But opponents question whether politicians can be trusted with the money.
The St. Louis County Republican Central Committee voted unanimously in February to oppose the proposition, with one abstention — former St. Louis County police chief Tim Fitch, said Ken Newhouse, committeeman for Wild Horse Township.
Fitch now works for Emerson and declined to comment, citing company policy.
Newhouse said the former chief told the committee he would support the proposition only if Stenger publicly promised that he would never reduce the police department’s existing budget and replace existing money with the new sales tax money to cover the county’s budget woes. There is no language in the ballot proposal or enabling legislation that prevents leaders from reducing existing budgets and replacing spending with the new tax money, Newhouse said.
Stenger said voters will hold him and other elected officials accountable. He also said the public will be able to monitor the money online.
“I view myself as a steward of the public’s money and I’m going to spend the dedicated sales tax on police and public safety,” he said. “There’s no history of that going on with any other dedicated funds in St. Louis County, and no games have been played with the budget — and there will be none in the future.”
Similar accountability concerns have risen in St. Clair County, where voters will be asked whether to boost sales taxes to fund public safety improvements. There, the County Board approved a resolution from the union within the sheriff’s department to ensure any new money will be added to the existing budget.
Newhouse also is the founder of an anti-sales tax group called NoMO Sales Tax, which considers property taxes to be more equitable, a premise with which Stenger disagrees. He said a property tax would be too much of a burden on the lower class, and noted that not only residents but out-of-towners would pay a sales tax.
The $34 million projected to go to municipalities ranges from the most populous city, Florissant, getting $2.6 million, to tiny Champ — population 13 — getting just $650. The Municipal League is letting its member cities decide independently whether to support Proposition P, said Steve Ables, the group’s assistant director.
Newhouse said there’s a concern smaller municipalities with problem police departments could misuse the money.
Stenger said many of the problem police departments are within small communities that won’t receive much money.
‘Proposition Bigger Government’
Chesterfield stands to take in $2.3 million, while shoppers in Chesterfield would pay out $7.4 million through the new sales tax. Mayor Bob Nation is opposed to Proposition P — a position Stenger decries as parochialism when leaders need to think regionally and realize all the services, such as crime labs and homicide investigations, the county provides.
Nation argues that everyone who owns property in St. Louis County already pays real estate and personal property taxes that support the county’s general fund.
About 88 percent of the county’s $106 million police budget comes from the county’s general revenue fund, Belmar said.
Nation said that Proposition P would drive residents to places with a lower cost of living.
“This should be called Proposition BG for Proposition Bigger Government,” Nation said.
On average, sales tax runs between 7 percent and 8 percent in most of unincorporated St. Louis County, as well as some municipalities, Stenger said, so the idea that a higher tax would discourage development is a stretch.
The Chesterfield police union endorsed Proposition P, but Nation argues that cities such as his pay for their own police departments and don’t need the money.
Opposing the proposition does not make Nation or others anti-police, he said.
“They’re trying to play on the sympathy and empathy people have for law enforcement to get this passed,” Nation said. “But mathematically, politics aside, what they’re asking for is just outrageous. It’s about a 40 percent increase in their police budget.
“They need to find these resources elsewhere.”
Previous efforts to raise money for public safety have failed.
In 2015, money for law enforcement was part of a proposal in the Missouri Legislature to restructure how St. Louis County sales tax is collected and distributed. Then, Belmar voiced support for the measure, which would have brought in $16 million to the county police. But, it never made it onto the ballot.
Last year, the Municipal League proposed legislation that would have asked voters for a quarter-cent sales tax countywide, which would have brought about $25 million to St. Louis County, but the proposal never made it out of committee.
And in 2012, Fitch floated the idea of a special taxing district that would raise personal and property taxes in the unincorporated areas to pay for officers’ raises. It also went nowhere.
The chart accompanying this article has been corrected to include a category of tax receipts that had been inadvertently left out of St. Louis County’s portion of the funding.