In one sense, Propositions S and P are simple. They raise property taxes for potentially desirable improvements to University City’s streets and parks. But just beneath the asphalt, Propositions S and P implicate the much broader, more complex affairs of University City governance.
The web of interconnecting issues—transportation, recreation, flood control, sustainability, accessibility, taxation, good government—entangles every resident.
On Tuesday, voters here will accept or reject the city’s plan to issue $25 million in bonds. Fifty-seven percent support is needed for approval.
The $20 million Proposition S, for streets, and $5 million Proposition P, for parks, would fund repaved streets, sidewalks, and alleys; facility upgrades at Heman Park; and all-around improved ADA-accessibility.
But it’s an open question whether voters will be able to look past the controversy surrounding the proposals to weigh their pros and cons.
Allegations of tampering with the ballot language, promoting the proposals with city funds, and waging misinformation campaigns have left the city’s politics just as toxic and bitterly personal as University City’s municipal governance has come to be known over the last year.
At the heart of the issue are the quality and accessibility of the city’s streets, alleys, sidewalks, and parks.
City officials, supported by a majority of the council, contend that numerous improvements are necessary to repair the city’s aging infrastructure.
On the 10-point Pavement Surface Evaluation and Rating System, the city’s roads have an average rating of 6.2. According to University City Public Works Director Richard Wilson, asphalt begins to deteriorate rapidly at this rating.
Plans call for Proposition S’s $20 million to repair and improve 40 miles of city-maintained streets. Bond money would also resurface sidewalks, eliminating trip hazards and installing approximately 1,800 ADA-accessible ramps. A combined total of six miles of alleys throughout the city would receive improvements, too.
“We’re right on the verge of our streets going to heck,” Wilson warned in an interview.
Plans for Proposition P aim to address what proponents consider a lack of accessibility and destination appeal in city parks. The $5 million bond focuses primarily on Heman Park, funding a new playground, shelter, and other amenities, as well as a new Midland Boulevard entrance.
The planned improvements—both in Heman and other city parks—prioritize increased accessibility. The city’s informational literature on the bond proposals notes that a 2013 inclusion audit of city parks revealed numerous instances of ADA-noncompliance.
Also included in the plan for Proposition P is regrading and bank stabilization for the flood-prone River des Peres, though the improvements would be limited to the section of the river in Heman Park.
City staff formulated the plans under the direction of City Manager Lehman Walker.
Not all of the city’s seven council members, who oversee Walker, were satisfied with Walker’s approach to planning, however. As with nearly every other contentious issue in University City in the last year, the city council split 5-2, with council members Terry Crow and Paulette Carr, of Wards 1 and 2, respectively, disagreeing with the majority.
Carr, who styles herself as a “citizen advocate,” said that she first heard of the bond proposals in November 2014 only because she happened to attend a citizen-police focus group meeting that Wilson also attended.
City staff “had been speaking to every public group and commission” about the bond proposals before Wilson informed her of the plans, she said.
For his part, Crow told nextSTL that he did not learn of the proposals until the council’s January 5, 2015, study session where city staff formally presented the proposals to the council.
The secrecy, the pair of council members alleged, highlighted the city’s failure to develop the proposals in a transparent planning process open to citizen engagement. Instead, they asserted, Walker reached the decision to develop the bond proposals with only the input of three citizens specially selected by Walker for that purpose.
Both at the council’s meeting on January 12, and later in an interview with nextSTL, Carr complained of the lack of diversity among the citizens—John Solodar, Ed Schmidt, Ed McCarthy—calling them a “secret committee” of “three white men.”
She also noted that the three live in the same general vicinity: North of Delmar Boulevard and South of Olive Boulevard.
At the January 5 study session, Walker told the council that he had selected the individuals because he worked well with them.
The result, according to Crow, was that the proposals were “all rushed through with no public engagement.”
Mayor Shelley Welsch, a supporter of the proposals, said that the decision-making process was simply a function of the city’s governance structure.
“The city manager made a recommendation, the city council took the recommendation, and now it’s up to the voters of University City,” she said.
On the plans’ merits, the council maintained its division.
Neither Crow nor Carr agreed that $25 million in bonds would be the best way to tackle street and park improvements, or even that additional funding was necessary.
“Do I believe there is money in the budget? Yes, I do.” Crow said.
Some of the proposed expenditures, like the new Heman Park entrance, represent “an odd set of priorities,” especially given longstanding concerns about the community’s natatorium, Crow added.
Carr noted that city streets received an infusion of $5 million from reserves over the last two years.
In the majority’s view, more was needed.
“We have an aging infrastructure that needs to be repaired,” Welsch said.
Ultimately, her faction won. On January 26, the council formally signed off on sending the bond proposals to voters.
Just before 1:00 the next day, City Clerk Joyce Pumm delivered the proposals to the St. Louis County Board of Elections.
Three hours later Pumm returned to amend the documents. As first discovered by local activist Tom Sullivan and later reported by the West End Word, Pumm crossed out information disclosing the bond proposals’ accompanying tax increases.
“The authorization of the Bonds will authorize the levy and collection of an annual tax…on all taxable tangible property in the City,” the dropped paragraph read in part.
A divided council disputed the significance and propriety of the language’s removal.
According to Mayor Welsch, the information was never intended to be included in the ballot summary. With the tax information removed, the remaining language mirrors that of previous bond proposals, she said.
In the council’s original resolutions, the bolded, indented text for Proposition S, for example, read:
“Shall the City of University City, Missouri, issue its general obligation bonds in the amount of Twenty Million Dollars ($20,000,000) for the purpose of constructing, reconstructing, resurfacing, paving and improving streets, sidewalks and alleys?”
The tax information, by contrast, formed a separate paragraph that was neither bolded nor indented.
“There was a clerical error, it was pointed out, it was rectified,” Welsch said in an interview.
“When I looked at the past ordinances of the city, they have been bolded and indented,” she said. “That’s the way it’s done.”
Carr countered that view: “We passed it to include the information that was underneath the bolded section.”
When voters go to the polls, they will not see any reference to tax increases. Instead, the language’s reference to “general obligation bonds” is the only hint that approval of the proposals would trigger tax increases.
Council member Rod Jennings, of Ward 3 and a supporter of the proposals, dismissed the significance of the pared-down language.
“We’re not hiding anything,” he said. “Everybody knows this will be a tax increase.”
Opponents of the proposals, meanwhile, have implied that the language’s removal is characteristic of a council majority committed to log-jamming its own agenda without public debate.
“I’m assuming (the city clerk) talked to Lehman Walker and Shelley Welsch,” Carr told nextSTL. “They made the decision to delete some of the language of the ordinance.”
“Neither she nor the city manager had the authority to do that,” Carr added.
At the council’s February 23 meeting, Ward 1 Council member Stephen Kraft, who supports the bond proposals, dismissed the concerns as just another of Carr’s “conspiracy” theories, according to council minutes.
“PRESENTING THE FACTS”
On January 28, two days after the council approved placing the bond proposals on the April ballot, the city issued a request for qualifications for a contractor to design four pieces of informational literature: one postcard, two brochures, and one insert for ROARS, the city’s bimonthly newsletter—all to be mailed to residents in the weeks leading up to the election.
The postcard was the first to go out, hitting mailboxes in early March.
Its graphic design gave the bond proposals a crisp and modern, distinctly non-bureaucratic appearance—a theme that stayed consistent across all four pieces of literature. But the literature also detailed the city’s planned expenditures, along with the estimated monthly tax burden, under the bond proposals in an easy-to-understand format.
Practically on cue, tensions flared.
At the council’s March 9 meeting, Carr broached the issue with Walker, the city manager.
She complained that the council had no formal oversight mechanism in place to pre-approve the content. She did not see the postcard until it arrived in her mailbox.
Walker perfunctorily reiterated the law.
Under University City ordinance, the city manager may spend up to $25,000 without council pre-approval. Total cost for the informational literature was expected to come in around $18,000.
Without a majority, there was little Carr could do beyond exercising her bully pulpit—a pulpit she shares with six other council members.
They quickly weighed in. Kraft again accused Carr of trading in a “routine of innuendos and conspiracy theories.”
Jennings also criticized Carr for being a bad-faith naysayer. Carr responded by recalling that it was Jennings who had said that he “would crush her like a cockroach,” a reference to a 2014 Facebook post in which Jennings also called her “a little white privilege princess.”
With that, Welsch cut off the back and forth.
Opponents continued the fight on KTVI’s ‘You Paid For It’ with Elliott Davis.
University City resident and bond proposals opponent Steve McMahon told Davis, “They want us to vote for it, so they’re out promoting it with our money.”
Welsch appeared on the program to defend the city’s informational literature. “We are informing our residents,” she said. “We are presenting the facts of the bond issues…Presenting information is not promoting.”
Later, Carr said that a particular concern was the literature’s description of the tax burden in monthly increments. That approach, she said, was designed “to make (the proposals) more palatable.”
“I find that a little problematic,” she said. “We pay our property taxes on a yearly basis, not a monthly basis.”
She’s correct in that Missourians pay property taxes annually.
Walker explained the monthly increments, saying, “I believe that most people pay their bills on a monthly basis.”
And, as the proponents pointed out, the brochures include a straightforward equation that residents could use to determine the additional annual amount they would owe. This, of course, assumes that the pieces of literature didn’t immediately land in the recycle bin or compost pile.
TAXES VERSUS SERVICES
If residents are able to look past their municipality’s poisonous politics, their thinking is likely to boil down to an age-old bout: taxes versus services.
For the life of the 20-year bonds, residents would face about $58.20 more per year per $100,000 of value on both real and personal property, according to city officials. The exact number would be set based on the interest rates, which are at historic lows, at the time the bonds are issued.
Of that, Proposition S’s annual cost would amount to $46.56 per $100,000 of value.
Proposition S would not touch county- or state-maintained thoroughfares like Olive Boulevard. Instead, its funding would be directed to city-maintained streets more likely to carry local travelers.
The 40 miles of streets touch all areas of the municipality and constitute approximately half of the city’s streets.
According to Wilson, the city’s public works director, the first projects would focus on putting in ADA-compliant ramps at intersections. Work could begin as soon as May or June, he said.
Turnaround on those and the other street, sidewalk, and alley projects should be relatively short. Plans call for all of the bond-funded work to be completed within three years.
On streets themselves, two types of improvements are planned. For streets in dire condition, crews would remove the current asphalt layer, replacing it with a new two and a half inch layer. Streets with fewer problems would be treated with thin hot mix asphalt.
The improvements would adhere to the city’s 2013 bicycle and pedestrian master plan.
Proposition S “would allow the city to expedite the bike lanes that are part of the plan,” Walker said.
According to Cindy Mense, Director of Programs for Trailnet, implementation of the bicycle and pedestrian master plan would likely reduce the incidence of vehicles striking pedestrian and cyclists at intersections. That’s particularly important, she said, because intersections are the place where such accidents most often occur.
Added Welsch: 1,800 ADA-compliant ramps would make University City “far more walkable for all residents of all ages and abilities.”
The cost of Proposition P per $100,000 of value would amount to $11.64 per year.
Completion of its improvements would follow the same three-year timeline as Proposition S, according to Wilson.
The informational literature breaks the proposal’s $5 million into four categories: $1 million for Heman Park facility improvements, $1 million for ADA-accessible water fountains, seating, and surfaces throughout city parks, $1.5 million for parking and a Midland Boulevard entrance to Heman Park, and $1.5 million for River des Peres regrading and bank stabilization.
The projects would advance the visions laid out in the city’s 2008 parks master plan and 2014 Heman Park master plan.
To begin, the city would bring in design consultants for the major improvements, Wilson said.
Jennings, who grew up playing in University City parks, said the improvements would help bring about a “return to the pristine parks” of his childhood.
At least one aspect of the vision for Proposition P didn’t settle well with Carr.
“They’ll be putting more pavement into an essentially green area, which I don’t like, for parking and more roads,” she said.
Generally, though, opponents’ talking points focus on the proposals’ cost.
“People are not going to come out to vote for a tax increase,” Carr said. “They might come out to vote for the goodies, but they’re not going to come out to vote for a tax increase.”
She and other opponents characterize the proposals as a 40 percent tax increase in the city’s property taxes. That’s true.
But residents also pay property taxes to other entities like the Metropolitan Sewer District and St. Louis Community College.
At the January 5 study session, for instance, one council member estimated that approval of Propositions S and P would increase his overall property tax liability five percent, according to the meeting’s minutes.
According to Census data, median household income in University City is about $52,000. The median value of an owner-occupied home is about $210,000. For a resident at both medians, the annual tax increase would amount to $120.90, accounting for one fifth of a percent of the resident’s pre-tax income.
UCity United, a group backed by Crow and Carr that opposes the proposals, tells visitors to its website, ucitybonds.com, that passage of Propositions S and P would amount to double taxation. That’s because University City voters approved half-cent sales taxes for capital improvements and parks in 1996 and 2001, respectively. The two sales taxes together bring in roughly $3.3 million per year, the group writes.
Walker, though, denied the availability of other revenue streams for the sought-after improvements.
“That’s incorrect,” he said. “The Public Works and Parks staff identified several projects that need doing.”
“The longer you wait, the more the roads deteriorate, the more it costs to fix,” he continued.
With the city’s AA credit rating and low interest rates, Jennings said the timing was good. Prices are only going to go up.
That reasoning proved unpersuasive to those concerned more about a continual march to increase taxes in the municipality.
“Our taxes are high,” Carr said.
“People tend to say that we have the highest in the region, which is just not true if you look at the total tax burden,” which she said was around the middle for St. Louis County.
The relative lack of overlapping local governmental entities in University City helps give the misimpression that University City is an outlier, she said.
“We are a full-service city,” Welsch said. Unlike other jurisdictions, “You don’t pay extra for fire. You don’t pay extra for police. You don’t pay extra for sanitation.”
NORTH OF OLIVE
The enduring reality of the St. Louis region’s racial segregation and inequality adds another dimension to the taxes versus services analysis.
University City is thought to be one of the most diverse municipalities in St. Louis County. Census data show that the city is approximately 49 percent non-Latino white and 41 percent non-Latino black. Asians at four percent, Latinos at three percent, and multiracial residents at three percent make up the remainder.
Eight percent of residents are foreign born.
Throw in Washington University students, and it’s a real mix by St. Louis-area standards.
But the same St. Louis rules apply. Whites live in the south; blacks live in the north. Many residents live on portions of streets that have been cut off from the grid, either permanently of quasi-permanently.
Crossing the wealth gap, to the extent that it is feasible, is typically a generations-long process.
It’s no surprise, then, that there is tacit acknowledgment among proponents and opponents alike that streets in Ward 3, the city’s northernmost, have traditionally received less attention than those to the south. Ward 3 comprises all land north of Olive Boulevard, along with a small chunk of land around Ruth Park Golf Course on the city’s western edge.
Both of the ward’s council members, Jennings and Arthur Sharpe, Jr., are black. They support the proposals. The rest of the council is white.
Sharpe declined to be interviewed for this article. But Jennings was more open.
He said that Ward 3 has the lowest per capita income in the city, and the streets are in “sad shape.”
Cognizant of this reality, both sides claim their position represents the best interests of University City’s low-income residents.
The added cost of the tax increases would particularly hurt those in the River des Peres floodplain, which victimizes residents in Wards 2 and 3 alike, Carr said.
“They’re economically disadvantaged. Sometimes they have to choose between food and flood insurance,” Carr said. “They’ll lose their house or not eat. And I can tell you it will be the not eating.”
For Jennings, the street improvements constitute a resident-first focus that would pay dividends for business districts too.
“No one wants to develop on Olive,” he said. But “if we take care of neighborhoods surrounding it,” the investment would attract business development, he theorized.
At a more basic level, Jennings said he is representing his Ward 3 constituents.
“Most of the complaints—or what my residents wanted—they said they wanted better streets,” he declared.
Carr pushed back against that narrative.
“People in the 3rd Ward are saying and they’re being told: ‘You have to pass this bond issue because we can’t fix George (Street) otherwise.’ To me, that’s holding these people hostage. That money is there. In fact, there are other monies there.”
Rhetoric like that upsets Welsch.
Some opponents “have no compunction about using lies and misinformation,” she said.
“It’s a disgrace to University City, and we deserve better.”
Then again, that’s a sentiment widely shared by each side.