BY PAUL HAMPEL firstname.lastname@example.org
St. Louis Post-Dispatch - Saturday, August 27, 2011
CLAYTON • St. Louis County Executive Charlie A. Dooley said Friday that he wanted to increase property taxes, a move he said would offset a drop in revenue while providing a raise for county employees.
Dooley said that without a tax increase, he would be forced to lay off county employees next year.
Dooley's proposal would need the approval of the County Council, but its chairman, Steve Stenger, said Dooley's idea was a nonstarter. Five other members of the seven-member council said they also opposed a tax increase.
Stenger, like Dooley a Democrat, said the county already had enough money in reserves to cover the raises.
He also asserted that the executive tried to use County Police Chief Tim Fitch to force the issue on the council.
Dooley said county tax revenue was on course to drop $10 million this year.
"We cannot afford to lose $10 million with costs going up and expenses going up," he said.
He called for a 2.3-cent property tax increase that would generate $8.6 million over the next two years. The county's current rate is 52.3 cents for each $100 of assessed valuation.
In 2012, about $5 million of that sum would cover a 2.5 percent pay increase for county employees, who have not had a raise in more than three years.
An additional $1.4 million would cover an increase in employees' health insurance premiums, and $800,000 would pay for increases in their retirement fund. The balance would cover miscellaneous "cost increases."
Dooley said: "This adjustment of the property tax rate will allow us to do some things: Fix our budget structurally over the next two to three years and give a modest adjustment (raise) for our employees. If we don't do that (raise taxes), there will be significant layoffs."
Dooley also said failing to raise taxes would lower county reserves below the 10 percent threshold needed for a Triple AAA bond rating.
The proposed tax increase would cost the owner of a $140,000 house an extra $6.14 a year.
Stenger, a lawyer and a certified public accountant, called Dooley's proposal "a revenue grab."
"The only thing I can surmise is that the Dooley administration does not want to do more with less, instead of tightening their belts and playing by the same rules as everyone else is playing by in this economy," said Stenger, of the Affton area.
He disputed Dooley's statistics, citing a county report that showed that general funds revenue through the second quarter of this year were only $824,000 lower than in 2010.
"There's nothing on the horizon to suggest that trend won't continue through the rest of the year, and the result will be a negligible drop that won't affect our reserves," he said.
He said the county's total reserves at the end of 2010 were $82.5 million.
"This money, coupled with conservative appropriations for 2011, would easily allow for the proposed raise for county employees," Stenger said.
Stenger also suggested that if there were to be any layoffs, they should start with some recent county hires.
"In recent months, Charlie and (recently elected assessor) Jake Zimmerman have overseen the hiring of numerous political friends," he said. He cited six such hires this year with connections to Democratic politics, despite a countywide hiring freeze. They included Katy Jamboretz, Dooley's former campaign spokeswoman; Mike Temporiti, the son of Dooley's campaign treasurer, John Temporiti; and several former members of Zimmerman's campaign staff.
Stenger noted that their salaries, along with the severance pay for an employee whose departure made room for one of the new hires, amounted to about $342,000.
"That would have been a good start right there to help pay for the raises that longtime county employees deserve," he said.
Stenger said that Dooley had approached him and Councilman Mike O'Mara, D-Florissant, earlier this week.
"Charlie told Mike and me that he wanted to sell this tax increase to the public by using the police pay issue," Stenger said. "When we told Charlie we wouldn't support a tax increase because there's plenty of money in the budget already for a pay raise, Charlie turned around and tried to use the police to sell the tax raise to us (the council)."
Fitch confirmed that Dooley had asked him to call on the council members.
Fitch said he did not necessarily support a tax increase.
"My job as police chief is to advocate for my employees," Fitch said. "It's imperative that they get a raise next year. It doesn't matter to me how it gets done."
Stenger said he believed Dooley "wanted to drive a wedge between (the council) and the police."
Dooley denied such a motivation.
"That's untrue. I don't have a beef with Mr. Stenger," he said, adding, "I'm disappointed in him."
Just two years ago, Dooley had called a press conference where he proposed cutting the property tax by 3.5 cents. The County Council approved the request.
At the time, Dooley was running for re-election.
Stenger called that move "a campaign stunt."
"If he really cared about the employees, he would have got them the pay raises instead of cutting taxes," he said. "If he wants to raise taxes, let him call another press conference and announce it that way."
In a poll of the six other County Council members, all except one expressed opposition to a tax increase.
The exception was Kathleen Burkett, D-University City. She declined to say where she stood on the matter.
The issue has revealed a rare rift among Democrats in the county and may mark a sea change in interactions between the council and the county executive.
"My fellow council members' actions show a great deal of independence and leadership," Stenger said. "Charlie, on the other hand, is not displaying the kind of leadership that I am going to follow."