The Washington City Council Tuesday agreed to review a letter of nonsupport of Prop P to county officials.
That decision followed several questions of county officials and discussion of an equitable revenue distribution formula.
The Franklin County Commission approved the ballot language Tuesday for the half-cent sales tax expected to generate $6 million per year. It will appear on the April 3 ballot.
It is proposed that half of the money will go toward renovation for the county jail and 911 facilities while the additional $3 million will go to supplement all law enforcement agencies in the county.
Prior to discussion by council members, City Administrator Darren Lamb proposed three funding options to distribute sales tax revenue. Those included distribution based on population, distribution based on sales tax collection by each municipality and a combination of those. The county proposed a distribution of tax revenue based on the number of officers in each police force and the sheriff’s office.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Councilwoman Susan Watermann stated there is little control over how the tax revenue is split between infrastructure, including jail upgrades, and the funds that would be dispersed to benefit officers.
“I’m a bit troubled because of the lack of accountability in the (ballot) language itself,” she said.
Watermann noted that language does not specifically state one-half of the revenue will go toward each infrastructure and officer benefits. “What is keeping that from changing over the course of time?” Watermann asked. “There is nothing in the proposition to protect those funds to be used for law enforcement.”
She explained that funds could be shifted from officers to the other projects, such as further jail expansion.
“Of course we need a new jail. That’s important, but everybody wants our officers to be taken care of and we want our municipalities to be competitive to St. Louis and other areas so we are not losing good officers,” she added. “It is troubling that may not be protected.”
Watermann stated she spoke with Franklin County Commissioner Tim Brinker over the phone last weekend and she was told that plans called for a review board to be established to ensure funds are dispersed as promised.
Brinker said the duties of overseeing the tax revenue is the authority the county commission.
“We get feedback from the polls,” he added.
He added that the ballot language is the “binding verbiage” that references the tax revenue will be used for law enforcement.
“That’s true, it says that it is to be used for that but it doesn’t say that half of it, and half of it is to be used for infrastructure,” Watermann argued.
Brinker said the commission order states that half of the revenue will go toward law enforcement and the other half will go toward the jail, 911 and other infrastructure needs.
He added that the commission is audited to ensure the funds are used as the commission order states.
“The ballot language itself just says one-half cent to be used for the jail and for law enforcement — the ballot language itself doesn’t say a quarter goes to the jail and a quarter goes to law enforcement,” said City Attorney Mark Piontek. “Her (Watermann’s) point is you could take three-fourths of that money and put it to a new jail and only use a quarter of that money for law enforcement.”
Piontek added there is nothing that restricts the county from shifting the amount of funds that go toward law enforcement other than the commission order, which can be changed at any time.
“You can go back and amend that commission order any time,” he added.
Brinker said there are other sales taxes in the county that are structured similarly without that specific ballot language outline where revenue would go.
“You could apply that to a lot of taxes we currently enjoy and utilize for our citizenry,” he said.
Watermann said the council is not talking about other taxes.
Councilman Joe Holtmeier asked why there was a rush to place the tax on the April 3 ballot.
“There wasn’t a rush,” said Brinker. “These rumblings came up when Prop P passed in St. Louis.
“To construe this as any type of money grab or a taking of municipal dollars is not accurate,” Brinker commented.
“We all agree that this is the right thing,” Watermann responded. “What we haven’t addressed is without a sunset or a review board there is a lack of accountability.”
Brinker said to sunset a salary is “absurd.”
Watermann then asked why Brinker is opposed to added ballot language that clearly states the tax revenue would be split evenly.
Councilman Jeff Patke said disbursing funds based on the number of officers a municipality currently has does not address future population growth.
“I’m for Prop P. I am for helping everyone in uniform,” he said. “My questions are for the distribution of allocations.”
Patke stated he wants to ensure Washington officers get their “fair shake” not more or less than others in the county.
He noted that St. Louis County based the revenue distribution on population of cities.
“If Washington grows over the next 10 years we are getting missed as opposed to somewhere else in the county,” he said. “As cities grow, the need for officers increases.
“That’s why I think just the number of officers may be the wrong formula as a whole,” Patke added.
“Based on population the county would gain some (revenue) too,” Brinker said. “We understand those inequities and feel this is the best way to address them.”
Sheriff Steve Pelton told the council that the design of the proposition was a collaboration between every chief in the municipality.
“Nobody is trying to pull the wool over anybody’s eyes,” he said.
Pelton added that every officer in the county takes the same risks but some are paid only $11.25 per hour.
“Every challenge the county is having each municipality has and that is we are losing good police officers,” he said.
Pelton noted that all departments in the county need to address recruitment, retention, competitive wages and the need to increase services.
“When it was proposed to all of the chiefs and myself we thought it was more fair to go with each officer,” he explained. “I humbly say that because (my office) stands to make more money based on population. I serve 54 percent of the county.
“It doesn’t matter what shield you wear on your chest we share that same risk and that same burden.”
Holtmeier said the council is representing the citizens of Washington and the revenue distribution formula is unfair.
“I am all for police officers 100 percent,” he added. “I disagree with the formula and I think it should be changed.”
Councilman Steve Sullentrup said if the city opposes Prop P it could impact the renewal of the Washington Capital Improvement Sales Tax also on the April 3 ballot.
“We need to get along with Franklin County and Franklin County needs to get along with us,” he said. “We need to both pass these sales taxes.”
Councilman Greg Skornia said he agreed with Sullentrup.
“If we voice dissatisfaction with the way we are being reimbursed for the money we are generating, I think it is going to come off like we want it all,” he said. “I support the police and I think our police force is outstanding.
“It seems like we’re generating so much and getting so little back,” he added.
“We can add our concerns to the letter,” added Sullentrup, “but I think we should send a letter of support.”
Councilman Jeff Mohesky asked if the county asked for a letter of support.
“Why are we sending one?” he asked.
Sullentrup made a motion to send a letter of support, and include concerns raised by the city, however that measure was voted down. Sullentrup, Patke and Josh Brinker voted in favor of the support letter. Councilman Mark Hidritch was not at the meeting.
“It’s useless to do that because you don’t believe in it,” said Mohesky. “You are just trying to appease.”
Watermann then made a motion to send a letter of nonsupport, however the motion did not receive a second.