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Readers on earnings taxes

January 13, 2010 STL Region, Taxes 15 Comments
Excess baggage needing to be processed.

Last week I posted about an effort to eliminate local earnings taxes (The question of earnings taxes). The discussion in the comments was deep, diverse and divided.  This post introduced the reader’s poll for the week.  First the results and then I’ll share my thoughts.

Q: Should Missouri take away the authority of St. Louis to collect individual earnings taxes?

  1. No, too critical to the St. Louis’ budget to eliminate 94 [42%]
  2. Yes, phase out over a 10 year period 39 [17%]
  3. Yes, where there is a will there is a way 27 [12%]
  4. Yes, new taxes would make up the difference 18 [ 8%]
  5. No, just keep the earnings taxes in Missouri 14 [6%]
  6. Yes, St. Louis should cut city services to deal with loss of revenue 10 [4%]
  7. Unsure 8 [4%]
  8. Other answer… 8 [4%]
  9. Yes, if they give us back control of our police dept. 5 [2%]

The “other” answers given were:

  • With specific authority for the replacement revenue source(s).
  • phase in a $100 K cap.
  • Stop giving tax abatement to $800K houses on the Hill
  • No. In fact, expand it to cover all of Missouri!
  • Phase out over a three year period
  • Jane Jacobs prefers cities tax themselves, not divert the money to rural places.
  • implement an earnings tax in St. Louis County
  • find alternative funding source first

In my 19 years in St. Louis the 1% never once bothered me.  But as the poll and comments show, the views on the issue are wide-ranging. These different views are the significance of the topic.  More than half the 223 respondents favored a change.

Slay said he’s opposed to any statewide ballot proposals that would do away with the 1 percent tax, even with a 10-year phaseout period, unless the matter is left up to voters in the city of St. Louis.“If it allowed the voters of the city to decide the matter, and if voters subsequently decided they wanted to replace the tax with something else, and if it gave us a decade to come up with a solution, I would support it,” Slay wrote in a lengthy entry today on his blog.

He also made clear that he opposes one tax alternative — a land tax — that has been floated by wealthy financier Rex Sinquefield, who is behind the various initiative-petition options that have been approved for circulation by the secretary of state’s office. The aim of Sinquefield and his allies is to collect enough signatures to get at least one of the proposals on this year’s November ballot. [St. Louis Beacon, Slay says regional changes necessary before city earnings tax could be ditched]

Eliminating the city’s right to collect the tax without any other changes would certainly be a recipe for disaster.  Revenue, city services, population and jobs, would decline.  But doing nothing continues to set the City of St. Louis apart from the rest of the region. So what do we do?

As I see it we have several courses of action:

  1. Change nothing, keep everything as is.
  2. Begin phasing out the earnings tax and deal with the consequences (other taxes, reduced services)
  3. Or restructure the City of St. Louis top to bottom

#1 above is the likely route favored by St. Louis natives as it doesn’t involve change.  The anti-tax types would go for #2.  My preference is #3. a complete restructure.

What does a restructure look like? In my view we’d look at every policy, procedure, and position in every aspect of city government.  We’d toss out everything and start anew.  We might bring in some of the old but only after exploring all choices and determining the old way is the best way based on current conditions.  Given this approach, we might emerge with an earnings tax.  It might be be reduced for non-residents.  It might be expanded throughout much of the region (huge task).  We need to get rid of the city’s excess baggage.

Why such a radical restructuring? As we can see from the nearly 20 audits conducted by Missouri Auditor after a petition by the Green Party, all sections of government have oversight issues:

I don’t for a minute believe then men that governed the city 50-60 years ago made decisions that we should be expected to keep around long after they have passed. Ongoing evaluation and change to adjust to new circumstances is logical.  We don’t do that, unfortunately.  Instead various interests pick away one issue at a time.

The word “Mayor” is etched in stone above the door to room 200 in City Hall so I’d keep the office of mayor, besides every city has a mayor.  I don’t recall if Board of Aldermen or other offices are also etched in stone.  Even if they are, we are still be free to change how our government is structured, including the names of elective offices.

So no, I don’t want to pluck out one tax and call it a day.  I want to get a fresh start for the 21st century.

– Steve Patterson

 

Better restaurant choices in the center of the region

January 7, 2010 STL Region 6 Comments

urbanspoon

There are good restaurants throughout the region, on both sides of the Mississippi River.  To generalize, the core of the region has eclectic locally-owned restaurants and the further out you go the more you encounter generic chain after generic chain.  There are exceptions, of course.  I’ve been to great locally owned restaurants in suburban strip malls and I’ve been to chains in the core.  Chains can be company owned as well as a locally-owned franchise.

I regularly use the website Urbanspoon.com to find new restaurants, track my favorites and read reviews by others. The other day I started looking at the list of restaurants by area – city neighborhood vs. areas further out.  Sure enough, my suspicions were correct. But why?

Part could be many formula chains prefer stand alone buildings typical of suburbia. Conversely, the local restaurateur may only be able to afford rent on an older building.

Are urban types more prone to try new cuisines compared to counterparts in suburbia?  Do the restaurants fit the clientele?  Are foodies drawn to the core? I’d say the answers are all yes.

– Steve Patterson

 

Turning out the lights

When I first moved to St. Louis, I thought that there were a lot of street lights here. After living here for a few years, I’ve come to the conclusion that our high level is a result of a combination of older, dimmer lights simply being replaced with newer, brighter head units and an assumption that brighter street lighting is a deterrent to crime.

I’ve also been exposed to the edges of the “Dark Skies” movement, where people are very concerned about light pollution. Places like the big island of Hawaii and Tempe, Arizona, have enacted strict restrictions on exterior lighting, so people can see the stars at night. Daytona Beach has restrictions along the Atlantic Ocean, to protect the nesting areas of sea turtles. Given the recent economic challenges, Santa Rosa, CA, is eliminating nearly half of their street lights. “The city boasts that it will cut its carbon footprint. What really matters, though, is money.”

The truth, like many things, is probably somewhere in between. For security purposes, you just need to be able to see if someone is lurking or up to no good, you don’t need to be able to do surgery. Brighter is not always better – if you have a “glare bomb” of a gas station, then yes, everyone else around them needs to be incrementally brighter than they would be otherwise, just because of the extreme contrast. At the other extreme, on a clear night with a full moon, in areas without streetlights, even though the actual light level is very low, because it’s not concentrated, both people and things are readily discernible.

Which gets back to St. Louis. We have budget issues and we have crime issues. According to the city’s website, we have more than 80,000 streetlights. We even have a history of being the leaders in the use of electric lighting. The question, now, is whether or not we should maintain the status quo? Or, if we should see is we can save some money without increasing crime rates. The city’s budget includes ±$4.3 million for the Traffic & Lighting Division and its 33 employees, which works out to $67 per light.  If we were safely able to eliminate 10% of our existing streetlights, we’d be able to save more than a half million dollars annually and we’d be reducing our carbon footprint.  It all gets back to perception versus reality.  Are you willing to see reduced street lighting in St. Louis, both to save tax dollars and to be a bit more environmentally conscious?  Or is the pervasive fear of crime, in too many parts of town, enough justification to maintain, or expand, existing lighting levels?

– Jim Zavist

 

Regional goals/strategies for 2010

January 1, 2010 STL Region 4 Comments

Many of us use this time of year develop goals/strategies for ourselves, personally & professionally. I have a number for myself as well as this site.  But I think this would also be good practice for cities & regions.  The following are suggestions I have for the City of St. Louis and the St. Louis region to adopt for this year:

Region as a whole, including all counties & municipalities:

  • Rethink land development practices.  Concentrate not on assembling land, but on infilling existing areas at higher densities and at a finer grain & highly connected.
  • Rethink funding mechanisms for infrastructure and projects.  Find ways to decrease one municipality trying to steal sales tax dollars or employers from another.
  • Work on ways to reduce the total number of units of government including, but not limited to, municipalities, school districts, fire protection districts, etc…
  • Create a cooperative agreement among municipalities in the region’s core  (both sides of the river) to work on big picture planning for the older center.  Shared issues such as aging infrastructure, population loss, urban infill, and public transit can bring these cities together to share ideas and to leverage their collective strength.
  • Understand that by creating a great region in which to live more people will visit and stay.

St. Louis County:

City of St. Louis:

  • Establish a forum for citizens to explore changes to the city’s charter. Many ideas exist about the problems and solutions – these need to be discussed.
  • Along the same lines work to shift control of the police force from Missouri to our local leaders.
  • Drop the idea of rejoining St. Louis County.
  • Set up group to begin looking into the long process of changing our outdated zoning code.

There are probably many more items for these lists but the above is a starting point.  Happy New Year!

– Steve Patterson

 

Readers: consolidate local school districts

The poll last week was about schools.  Most of the 89 that responded felt more school districts in our region should be consolidated.

Wellston schools are merging with Normandy schools, should more school districts in the region merge?

Yes: 60 (67%)
No: 16 (18%)
Unsure/no opinion: 13 (15%)

The following is a map of the public school districts in two of the region’s 16 counties: St. Louis City & St. Louis County.

Image Source

The map only tells park of the picture.  For more we need to look at enrollment.

Wellston, that is being consolidated with Normandy, is the smallest district on the list.  The troubled St. Louis district, on the other hand, is the largest.  But we can’t conclude that small or large is uniformly bad.  Other factors, such as the overall economic demographic of the geographic area, are just as important in determining the overall success of a school district.  Districts in economically poor areas, in my view, are certain to perform below expectations regardless of the amount of money expensed per student.

The best solution may be consolidation of some and splitting up of others – with an eye toward diverse economics and neither too small or too big with respect to the total enrollment.

– Steve Patterson

 

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