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County outlook remains mostly sunny with some clouds on the horizon

The state of St. Charles County remains good, according to its chief elected official, who struck a positive note throughout much of a nearly 30-page “state of the county” report released last week.

However, even though the county continues to progress and its numbers stack up well compared to St. Louis city and county, the report also predicts some clouds on the horizon.

County Executive Steve Ehlmann presented his report to the County Council at its Feb. 26 meeting. The county charter requires the county executive to prepare a “state of the county” report annually. It is available to residents online at sccmo.org.

The report outlines an extensive list of projects and initiatives in transportation, public safety, parks, finances and economics that the county was involved with last year, along with a comparison to St. Louis City and County on some issues and numbers. Both paint a positive picture of the county.

“What we have in St. Charles County is about the same average household income as St. Louis County, but we have fewer poor people and we also have fewer rich,” Ehlmann said at one point in his presentation. “We’re very much a middle-class county, especially compared to St. Louis County.”

Councilmember John White [District 7], who chaired the meeting, said the report “proves once again that St. Charles County is a great place to live, work and raise a family.”

But there are some clouds on the horizon that the council and Ehlmann began discussing during county budget deliberations in December 2017.

The report notes that St. Charles County and St. Louis City and County have increased their spending per person in the last few years. St. Louis City and County spending increased $103.13 per person from 2012 to 2015 while their population decreased by 8,625 residents. St. Charles County increased spending by 3.8 percent during the same period but their population grew by 16,722. The report notes that the county was spending less per resident at the end of the period than at the beginning.

Ehlmann noted some issues that may limit spending in the future. The county has no general fund property tax and there has been little growth in the state’s gasoline tax, which funds state transportation improvements. The county’s road and bridge, and dispatch taxes are controlled by statute. The county also is contributing $1.3 million annually to fund 911 services.

But the most significant issue that may limit growth in services and spending is that sales tax revenues were up by just 1.66 percent in St. Charles County in 2017.  Sales tax revenue accounts for more than half the revenue available to fund services in the county’s general fund. County officials say increased shopping online has limited sales tax revenue because sales tax isn’t charged for many online purchases.

“It will be harder and harder to keep up our income from sales tax if the rate of increase continues to decline,” Ehlmann said.  “It [the 1.66 percent] doesn’t allow us to keep up with the rate of inflation.”

On the positive side, the report noted that the county received $48 million last year in funding for transportation projects including improvements to Route 61 and a new interchange at Gutermuth Road at Route 364, which was approved last year by the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, a regional planning agency that oversees federal and state transportation funding requests.

The county also provided $2 million toward infrastructure improvements at the Route A interchange to support a new 1.3 million-square-foot logistics operation center near the General Motors plant in Wentzville. The county also supported a study by the Missouri Department of Transportation to improve Interstate 70 in the St. Louis region.

The report states that the county remains active in fighting crime with the county police department increasing its efforts to arrest felons wanted for violent crimes, resulting in 948 fugitive arrests in 2017. Additionally, the turnover of 15,000 municipal and state traffic tickets cases to the St. Charles County Counselor’s office allowed the county prosecuting attorney’s office to handle more serious prosecutions. The county police department was one of only three in the nation to receive a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice for cybercrime investigations, the report noted.

Construction began last year on the new Emergency Operations Center that will house the county’s emergency management and communications operation along with a data center. The center is expected to open this summer. Renovations and expansion work was completed at the county police department headquarters in O’Fallon and at the jail.

In 2017, the county launched a text to 911 service that gives people the ability to text emergency services rather than making a telephone call. It also began providing data for its Prescription Drug Monitoring Program [PDMP] to fight opiate abuse.

According to the report, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin ranked the county first in Missouri for health factors and second for health outcomes, respectively. In 2017, the county assisted 27,000 health service clients, returned 908 missing pets, conducted 3,808 food inspections and processed 1,953 passport applications.

The county celebrated 20 years of its parks and recreation department with more than 1.5 million visitors to 12 parks, including 3,000 park visitors during the total eclipse in August and record-breaking attendance at the historic Daniel Boone Home in Defiance. Construction began on Veterans Tribute Park, which is located between Pitman Hill and Kisker roads and expected to open in late summer 2018.

Planning began on the former New Melle Lakes Golf Course, which may have a “soft” opening later this year, Ehlmann said.  Restoration began on the Daniel Boone Hays Home at Matson Hill Park near Defiance.

The county has less parkland – 9.3 acres per 1,000 residents than either St. Louis County at 12.5 acres per 1,000 residents or the city of St. Louis at 9.5 – but more trail mileage with .63 miles per 1,000 residents.

In economic news, the Missouri Job Center of St. Charles County became the first American Job Center in the state to be certified as an official sponsor of registered apprenticeship programs. The county continues to have the lowest jobless rate in the St.  Louis area. The county’s total assessed valuation was $8.3 billion. The county also experienced a 10.3-percent average increase in single-family housing values [price per square foot] from 2015 to 2017.

Compared to St. Louis City and County, the county’s estimated population, based on U.S. Census estimates in 2016, of 390,918 ranked second but had increased by 8.4 percent compared to no increase in St. Louis County and a drop of 2.5 percent in St. Louis City.

The county continues to lead the region in a number of economic categories with 1,844 single and multi-family housing permits issued last year, a 6.9-percent increase in jobs and an average household income of $90,526.  The county also has a lower percentage [5.9 percent] of people living in poverty. The county had 5.9 percent of households with income over $200,000 compared to St. Louis County at 7.9 percent.

According to 2016 statistics, the county also had the lowest number of violent crimes per 1,000 residents [1.3] when compared to St. Louis County with 3.8 and St. Louis City with 19.  The county’s 14 property crimes per 1,000 residents were lower than the 24 per 1,000 in St. Louis County, and the 61 per 1,000 in St. Louis City.

Ehlmann noted that public safety is “the most important thing we do.”

“We have to continue [to have] good schools and safe neighborhoods, that’s a key to our success,” he said.

Ehlmann added that he was particularly proud of the high percentage of county police officers [77 percent] with associate’s degrees or higher. That compares to 68 percent in St. Louis County and 45 percent in St. Louis City with comparable education, the report noted. The county’s pay for officers at $63,279 now is lower than St. Louis County, Ehlmann said.

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