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Ehlmann says St. Charles County in good shape but some clouds on horizon

St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann said that 2016 was a good year in county government with successes involving transportation projects, new facilities on the way and more parks to name a few. But he added that some “thunderstorms on the horizon” could loom in 2017.

Ehlmann delivered his annual state of the county report, as required annually by the county charter, at the St. Charles County Council meeting on March 13. The report allows Ehlmann to point out positive and negative developments each year and offer a peek at his administration’s priorities for the future.

One of the county’s major accomplishments in the last year was completion of the Interstate 70-Fifth Street interchange project. Ehlmann said it took nine months to complete a road project that some former city officials said would take years to complete. The project was finished in time to meet a Nov. 23 – Black Friday – deadline and was the result of successful partnership among the county, the city of St. Charles and the Missouri Department of Transportation [MoDOT].

“It does show that if everyone works together, we can get things done and we can get them done expeditiously,” Ehlmann said.

Route 364, also known as the Page Avenue extension, surpassed the I-70 Blanchette Bridge as the busiest Missouri River bridge crossing during morning and evening rush hours in 2016. Interstate 70, however, remains the most daily traveled route, Ehlmann said. He has been keen to work with MoDOT to restart an I-70 Corridor Study to look at possible improvements between St. Louis and St. Charles counties.

“I’ve said this many times before, the future of this county I think is dependent on upon us updating that I-70 corridor,” Ehlmann said. “Fifty percent of the commerce is [within] one mile on either side, 50 percent of the jobs and tax revenue. That corridor has been here since 1957 and in some places it’s showing its age. We need to be on top of that and make some changes now so it doesn’t end up becoming like some other transportation corridors in St. Louis County that used to be thriving and now are not so thriving.”

Ehlmann also cited the county’s Gateway Greenway Green Light program that is working to coordinate traffic signals throughout the county in an effort to reduce traffic congestion. The program is credited with helping to reduce travel time in major travel corridors of the county and congestion at major events.

Ehlmann said the county also has been active on public safety issues. It joined with St. Louis County, the city of St. Louis, Jackson County and others to implement a prescription drug monitoring program [PDMP] to fight prescription drug abuse that has been a contributing factor in what authorities say is a “heroin epidemic” throughout much of the state. Opiate-based prescription drugs often lead to the use of heroin because it’s a cheaper alternative to pills. A PDMP monitors prescriptions issued by physicians and dentists.

The state of Missouri remains slow to adopt a statewide PDMP and counties have taken it upon themselves – at least until the state takes action. Ehlmann said the county has done all the paperwork and the local PDMP could become a reality as early as April 1.

“We’re still seeing if they [state legislators] do something on a state level but if they don’t we are ready to go,” he said.

The county also is ready to build a new, 30,000-square-foot emergency operations center adjacent to its police department headquarters building in O’Fallon. The center will house emergency management and communications, and a data center. The facility is expected to cost $24 million to build and equip, and open in late 2018.

Meanwhile, crime statistics suggest the county is one of the safer places in the St. Louis area. The numbers show that there are about 15 crimes per 1,000 people in St. Charles County, compared to 28 crimes per 1,000 people in St. Louis County and 79 crimes per 1,000 in the city of St. Louis. This happened because of the hard work of the county and municipal police departments, he said.

Ehlmann also noted that the county has had a major expansion in its park acquisition in recent years. Lindenwood’s donation of the 300-acre historic Daniel Boone Home and property for a county park and development beginning on a new park at Pitman and Kisker roads, along with the acquisition of the 153-acre New Melle Golf Course are major developments.

Attendance at the Daniel Boone Home rose 12 percent in 2016. The Pitman and Kisker road park will provide walking and biking trails, trails, an accessible playground, dog park and more to an area of the county that doesn’t have as many parks, Ehlmann said. Construction started in March and is expected to be completed in the spring of 2018.

The New Melle property was acquired for future development but holds the potential of being one of the county’s nicest parks because it connects with nearby park property the county already owns, Ehlmann said.

As far as economic and financial issues, Ehlmann cited state legislation that change rules for Tax Increment Financing [TIF]. TIFs as an economic incentive to attract new businesses using local property and sales taxes to redevelop a specific property. TIFs often reduces tax funding available to local taxing jurisdictions, said Ehlmann, who has long opposed the use of some TIFs. Legislation passed last year puts the final decision to grant a TIF for a development with a countywide TIF commission.

“It isn’t just one municipal stealing business away from another,” he said.

Ehlmann said completion of the new St. Charles branch of the U.S. Post Office will allow SSM Health to expand its facilities. SSM Heath is “essential to the growth and prosperity of the entire county.”

Economic statistics show the county remaining a leader in single-family housing with nearly 50 percent of the new housing construction in the St. Louis region.  New housing construction is not back to pre-recession levels, which some say were a bit high then, but has reached a “new normal” of about 1,700 new single-family permits annually. “I wouldn’t mind seeing that go up a little bit each year,” he said. The county’s unemployment also remains the lowest in the region.

But Ehlmann said there are “some clouds on the horizon.” There has been little growth in the state’s gasoline sales tax, which is a primary source of road project funding for MoDOT. Gasoline tax revenue has not grown at what MoDOT anticipated because fewer people are driving and vehicles get better mileage, he said. “But if MoDOT can’t get their act in order and get in a position where they can provide at least part of these projects, it’s going to a problem for us.”

The county also is wrestling with new funding sources for the countywide 911 emergency telephone system. Funding for the system has been based on landline telephone fees, but fewer people are paying that fee because they are using cellphones. The county has had to contribute $1.3 million over the last seven years to the 911 fund to keep it afloat.

And, even though sales tax collections – 61 percent of the county’s general funds – were up 3.8 percent in 2016 over 2015, Ehlmann sees future issues. Since 2004 that annual retail sales tax growth has averaged 3.05 percent annually, population growth has also averaged a 1.88 percent increase, and cost of living has been up 2.46 percent annually over the same period. Sales tax isn’t keeping up with inflation and number of people the county has to serve, Ehlmann said.

“It’s a credit to all of us that we’re been able to basically provide the same services often with less money per person to spend,” he said. “There will come a time when that will be harder.”  People are shopping more online and not paying as much in sales tax revenue, he added.

The county also gave its employees a 1-percent pay increase for this year largely because of a high volume of health insurance claims in 2016. The county had to supplement its self-insurance program with $3.3 million from its general fund. That also lead to a more conservative county budget for 2017, Ehlmann said.

Priorities for the next year will include finishing the I-70 corridor study, a step needed for road projects to proceed. Federal officials have said they may fund “shovel ready” projects.

The county also may be looking into further steps to establish a port authority along the major rivers to encourage commerce.  Development of the ability of cellphone users to text to 911 also will be examined, as will a push to establish transportation companies such as Uber.

Ehlmann said construction will begin on U.S. 61 safety improvements near Wentzville and the county will seek federal and state money for a new Route 364 intersection at Gutermuth Road in 2017.

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