City nonprofits speak against proposed payroll tax bill

The service-based nonprofit community in St. Louis — including Catholic schools and agencies — came together before a committee of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen on June 22 to oppose a bill that would remove an exemption on a payroll expense tax. They shared time at microphone to explain their missions and how their services lead to a reduction in crime and improved living conditions for city residents.

Several speakers at the hearing took exception to a statement by the bill sponsor, Alderman Steve Conway, D-8th Ward, that they perceived as calling their operations a burden on the city. Some speakers pointed out that their employees already pay a 1 percent city earnings tax and that they have contributed funding and manpower, including neighborhood cleanup events, afterschool and summer programs for youth, and equipment purchases for the city police and fire departments.

Conway said the half percent tax that would go before voters could generate $12 million and is needed to secure pay raises for city police officers and related safety measures and because of what he estimated as more than 20 percent of city real estate that is owned by nonprofits and is untaxed. The committee is not expected to vote on sending the bill to the full board of aldermen until sometime the week of June 26. Several of the committee members said they do not expect it to pass, but further discussion with nonprofits on safety in the city could result.

Kate Becker, president of SSM Health St. Louis University Hospital, reminded the aldermen that her hospital was among a few that now care for people of limited means who used to be treated at city-owned hospitals that were closed. The police and firefighters bring people who overdose on drugs and homeless people to her hospital, she added. "We have been partners for years," Becker said.

It was "incredibly hurtful" to hear Conway state that the fire department serves the hospital by bringing people there, she said. Becker agreed that the city is a "resource-scarce environment," but said the bill "leaves a hole in the net."

Steve Polk, chairperson of the Voices of the Poor committee and a board member of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in St. Louis, said the proposal "will be taking money away from the people we serve" — families and individuals "struggling day to day."

In an interview earlier, the St. Gabriel the Archangel parishioner said last year the society served 300,000 people within the Archdiocese of St. Louis with the help of 3,000 volunteers.

St. Patrick Center has 140 staff members in the city, so the estimated impact of the tax is about $30,000. It would mean cutting a staff person and not reaching three clients with housing and support services, said Laurie Phillips, CEO, adding that the budget and grants are already set for the next year. "Nobody wants to donate to an organization so they can pay administrative costs and taxes," she said.

Karen Wallensak, executive director of St. Francis Community Services, another Catholic Charities agency, said her agency's afterschool and summer programs at its Southside Center help reduce crime by keeping youth away from risky behaviors. The agency also offers training to police officers in how to be effective when dealing with an immigrant population. "My fear is that we will end up having to cut the very services that are preventing crime in the city in order to pay for this tax," she said.

Tom Buckley, attorney for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, said Catholic schools save the city's public school system tens of millions of dollars, since it costs the city about $15,000 to educate each student. "The nonprofits and social service agencies behind me are fighting crime on the street day in and day out, not with guns and bullets but ... through a change in the culture. That only comes about through providing health care, education, social services and prayer."

Michael England, president of St. Mary's High School, cited the success of the school, where 98 percent of the recent graduating class plan to attend college and the other 2 percent will enter the military. Seventy percent of the students receive financial aid and half of them receive a significant amount of aid, he said, with some of the funding unavailable if the tax is imposed. The school, which has a service day in the neighborhood each year, tore down an adjacent public housing complex that had been a major source of crime and emergency calls, England said.

Leslie Gill, chief executive officer of Annie Malone Children and Family Services, pointed out that she is a proud graduate of a Catholic school in the city, Rosati-Kain High School. Her agency, she said, is "on the front lines of crime fighting along with law enforcement" by serving children affected by abuse and neglect. 

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