Monday, August 28, 2006

Hoepfner & Weller Kill Bill To Appropriate Funds For Operation Of Community Center

By Phyllis Schaltenbrand

As one observer put it, the good news is the citizens will have the opportunity to finally vote for a Community Center. The bad news is they won’t be given the chance to offset the operational costs with a use tax on out of state sales.

This split decision came as the Council voted last week to finally put a no tax increase issue on the ballot for a long awaited Community Center. That issue will appear on the November ballot. The vote to put the Community Center on the ballot passed nine to one with only Councilwoman Dottie Greer dissenting.

The use tax vote was held over a week because it was amended at the last Council Meeting. Individuals are exempted from paying any use tax on the first $2,700 of out of state sales, so it is mainly a form of sales tax paid by business on their out of state purchases. They would be paying sales tax if they made those purchases in-state so it is also a way to level the playing field for other local businesses and suppliers. St. Charles County passed its own use tax several years ago to fund the County Parks System.

Councilman Rory Riddler, who chairs the Council’s Community Center Committee said he was still happy the voters would be able to say yes to a Community Center, but sorry that just two Councilmen killed the use tax from going to the voters. “All the use tax did was give us the flexibility to offset the day to day operations of the center once it is open,” explained Riddler.

His reference was to Councilmen Bob Hoepfner and Mike Weller, who cast the two lone votes against the issue. Council members Riddler, Koester, Muench, Gieseke and Brown voted to place the issue on the ballot. But with the bill’s co-sponsor, Bob Kneemiller, absent for health reasons, the bill fell one vote short of passage.

Councilman Mark Brown told the FCN, “It is disheartening that Councilmen Hoepfner and eller would rather have a personal property tax which will hurt the residents rather than a use tax which will essentialy affect none of our residents.

Two separate surveys by the St. Charles Parks Board have shown that upwards of 79% of the residents of the City of St. Charles support building a Community Center. But Councilman Hoepfner stated previously he wanted the Community center built on land owned by Lindenwood University.

According to an e-mail circulated by City Administrator Allan Williams, Hoepfner claimed that the University would donate the land. However, a check by the Administrator with University officials found they had made no such claim.

Councilman Riddler challenged anyone on the council to bring forward another five acre site for consideration. The current preferred site was selected by the five member Council Community Center Committee and approved by the full council last year.

“With the $7.2 million Fifth Street extension and overpass, Blanchette Park will be easily accessible to residents in the fastest growing part of the City around New Town and the various subdivisions North of 370. It will be visible from 370 at one of the highest points of the City and take advantage of those resulting views. It would be adjacent to other park amenities in Blanchette Park, which was rated in the Parks Board surveys as the most well thought of Park in the City. It would give Blanchette Park control of essential parking now owned by the Boys and Girls Club and the purchase of the Boys and Girls Club property will help them realize their dream of building a new facility on adjacent land,” explained Riddler.

He added the site wasn’t commercial ground and would not take valuable land off the tax rolls. The site has already been appraised, surveyed and the architectural firm of Hastings and Chivetta had found the Community Center would fit on the site. “It’s easy for some on the council to take pot-shots at a site, when they don’t have an alternative to offer. There is no one perfect site that everyone can walk to. Everyone will get in their cars and drive there and if we build a quality facility, it will draw users,” said Riddler. Riddler also countered criticism that 37% of those surveyed living South of Interstate 70 said they wouldn’t use a facility North of 70 by pointing out that 20% of those same respondents said they wouldn’t use a facility South of 70 when given options of sites South of 70.

The exchange between Riddler and Hoepfner produced its lighter moments. Councilman Hoepfner said that he had received absolutely “no information” on what would be in the proposed Community Center and he “wasn’t going to vote for any facility that I don’t know what’s in it.” Councilman Riddler, who was elected to chair the meeting in the absence of Council President, asked the City Clerk to, “Please read to Mr. Hoepfner the list of amenities sent out to the Council.” The Clerk was already holding the document that had been sent out to all Council members and proceeded to read a long list of facility amenities including an indoor walking/jogging track, an indoor aquatics center, child care facilities for parents using the facility, aerobics, weight room, three gyms, refreshment area, lap pool and meeting rooms among others.

A letter by Park Board president T. J. Slattery also struck a nerve with Council members John Gieseke and Mark Brown. Slattery had his message delivered to the Council and wasn’t there in person to explain the letter which said the Park Board wouldn’t support the issue unless they could control all the funds. Councilmen Brown and Gieseke took exception to a board that does not answer to the people controlling such a large sum of money. After a lengthy exchange of views, Despite Slattery’s letter Park Board member Barb Clark told the Council that she believed the Park Board would support a Community Center.

Councilman Riddler ended his remarks asking the Council to think about what they would be doing a year from now. “Will we put up a plaque saying on this site nothing happened or will we be breaking ground for a community center like all of our surrounding communities already have?”

In the end the arguments failed to persuade the no votes of Hoepfner and Weller. Still, Riddler seemed optimistic. “If the voters approve the no tax increase for a Community Center that sends a powerful message to the Council and Mayor to finally get off the dime and make it work. Residents of St. Peters, O’Fallon, Florissant, Maryland Heights, Bridgeton, Clayton, Kirkwood, Richmond Heights, Chesterfield and the list goes on and on, all have Community Centers they can be proud of.”

“Construction costs and land costs only go up, they don’t go down. Anyone who thinks it is too expensive is saying we can never have a Community Center because it will never be cheaper to build than it is today. We can do this. Our residents deserve leadership, not excuses,” said Riddler.
Councilman Joe Koester told the FCN, “Once again some on Council have decided to use their vote for political payback rather than for constructive benefit for our residents.