Alderman Ogilvie: $180M St. Louis City Bond Issue Deserves Your Vote

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Tomorrow, August 4th, voters in St. Louis will consider a general obligation bond issue authorizing up to $180M in new debt backed by a property tax increase. The vote marks the first time since 1999 the City has gone to voters for a substantial and wide-ranging bond issue to pay for capital needs. The City Charter requires 2/3rds voter approval for passage.

As a representative on the Capital Committee, I’ve been involved with the development of a Capital Needs Inventory for the City since 2013. The list covers most areas of local government including the Fire Department and EMS, Police, Corrections, Courts, City Buildings, Streets and Bridges, and Rolling Stock (vehicles).

While the Capital Committee ultimately approved the list, most line items on the list came from a deliberative process led by the City’s budget division, department heads, facilities management personnel, and Board of Public Service (the name of our public works division.) The list is specific where possible (replace a Trash Truck purchased in 2000, replace air conditioner units at 1520 Market) but more general where necessary (roof repairs to fire houses). The overall theme is replacing expensive but necessary vehicles like aging fire trucks, ambulances, and trash trucks, while also taking on deferred maintenance projects like the leaking roof at City Hall and the damaged water line underneath 1520 Market St. (our City Hall West Building).

The critical needs list we created is long, but rarely flashy. Most items included ensure the City’s more than 6,000 employees have the buildings, equipment, and vehicles necessary to provide the services residents want and need. Between car accidents, medical emergencies, and fires, our fire trucks and ambulances are constantly running. Trash trucks are out picking up trash every weekday. These vehicles ensure residents get quality basic services. The vehicles that enable these services are aging. When a 15 year old trash truck breaks down while on a route, it means dumpsters may not get emptied that day.

St. Louis does, in fact, budget for some of these vehicles on an annual basis. But given the cost of some of them ($250,000 for a trash truck or ambulance, $975,000 for a typical fire truck) and their service life (10 to 20 years) rolling them into a bond issue makes sense. When I discussed this bill on the floor of the Board of Aldermen in May, I used some of the time just to list the mundane, yet essential, investments and upgrades passing the bond issue would enable: (Discussion begins at about 31:00)

In addition to city facilities, vehicles, road, and bridge projects, the bill also breaks some new ground in local policy. For the first time, a Land Reutilization Authority (the owner of last resort for abandoned property) stabilization fund would be established. For decades the City has struggled with an inventory of properties acquired through tax delinquency. Many of the properties without an immediate private sector buyer fall into further disrepair and are eventually demolished when they become public safety hazards. Maintenance is generally limited to boarding exterior doors and windows, but a stabilization fund would allow enough investment to mothball and water-proof key structures so they can weather a period of vacancy until a private sector development can bring them back to life.

In addition, the bond provides an additional $4M in funding to our existing home repair program. Low and moderate income homeowners, including many senior citizens, can access the program to provide essential repairs to their living space. While in recent years the City has authorized generous tax incentives for projects like Ballpark Village and Ikea, this program is the other side of the coin. It provides direct assistance to residents who need it, often helping seniors stay in healthier homes or families repair costly items like a broken sewer lateral. The addition of $4M will help reduce the waiting list of homeowners the program continually faces.

A relatively small portion of the bond list has generated the most discussion. $15M is earmarked for road infrastructure around the potential NGA relocation site north of Pruitt-Igoe. As the bond issue was debated over the course of a year, that line item was refined in the language of the bill to only be issued if NGA selects the site north of downtown. If NGA exits the City for another location, the total bond issue shrinks to $165M.

While I’ve opposed other tax increases like Proposition P in 2012 and Amendment 7 in 2014, I truly believe this bond issue will address the priorities local government must have. By authorizing the bond, residents will ensure continued service from our fire department, EMS, refuse, court, and jail facilities. We’ll also be able to invest substantially in road and bridge projects using the bond funds as a way to access federal money. With recent Complete Streets legislation strengthened, those projects will deliver a more balanced transportation vision for the City. We’ll also break some new ground locally by finally establishing a building stabilization fund. All of this is possible for between $2 and $8 a month for most households.

If it fails, residents will see service interruptions. After two recessions and 16 years since the last bond passage in 1999, many essential city services are on life support. Now is the time to make this investment.

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  • rgbose

    Failed to get 2/3 approval, 61-39.

  • rgbose

    Lewis Reed Twitter in regards to oversight:

    The use of bond funds from prop 1 will be made transparent by citizen-led bond oversight committee created by city ord 69757

  • Mike

    One thing i would like to see if this passes is a website dedicated to this bond issue that will show the people where and how the money is being spent…upload all invoices for trucks, computers ect and all awarded projects on weekly bases…

  • Mike

    City workers per citizen
    DC 1/25
    San Fran 1/28
    NYC 1/32
    Baltimore 1/43
    STL 1/50
    Cincinnati 1/52
    Nashville 1/58
    Detroit 1/61
    Indianapolis 1/65
    Boston 1/65
    Kansas City 1/69
    Memphis 1/70
    Minneapolis 1/75
    Chicago 1/78
    Milwaukee 1/90
    Pittsburgh 1/94
    St.Paul 1/96
    Columbus 1/99
    Portland 1/102
    Ok City 1/134

    time to cut the fat

    • Alex Ihnen

      I though STL would be more of an outlier. IMO there’s a lot more to consider, such as visitors, commuter traffic, etc. STL City may have 319K residents, but is also host to vast majority of tourists and a large influx of daytime workers. City workers per resident is the best place to start, but there’s more to it. That said, we need to get started with that more in-depth analysis.

      • John R

        We can always look at our employee numbers, but it is no coincidence that 4 of the top 5 cities (STL, BAL, SF, D.C.) in the worker per employee ratio are independent of the surrounding region: many of the jobs we have would be County positions most everywhere else.

        • Alex Ihnen

          Nice point.

        • tim e

          Good point, but SF is a city-county like St. Louis. However, it also a much larger tourist base, employee base coming in and out of the city. NYC and DC also have much larger tourist and employer base to I can understand. St. Louis City is much more like Baltimore.
          .
          It would be interesting to see what Midwest peer cities would be with as a ratio with county works, What change in ratio to Minneapolis 1 per 75 is if you add a proportional share of Hennipin County employees per population.

          • fulltimemonti

            Same for Indy and NY technically, since the counties there are pretty much non-existant. Indianapolis is the county and NY is 5 counties.

  • joshua conyers

    Why couldn’t this initiative wait until the general election and a true people’s voice. Holding a special election with a forecasted 10% seems pretty shady to me. Not to mention the costs associated for setting up an election for one ballot issue. How much money could the city have saved here?

    This bond got my no vote the minute the Aldermen kicked In the ward improvement $$$$.

  • Daron

    You had me at stabilization fund.

  • Scott Ogilvie

    I would just say this, I’m sure a 6,000 person operation is not fully optimized, But few 6,000 person operations with a diverse and sometimes conflicting mission are fully optimized. The total employment in City government has steadily declined since the 1980’s across every department. What I do know is that despite the imperfect situation in this government, we have a lot of old vehicles and equipment. I’d like to maximize the service that those employees can deliver, but it doesn’t work when the roof leaks and the trash truck won’t start. Right now we’re paying quite a few people to patch things together over and over, and that really isn’t efficient either. We keep equipment longer than most cities do. But nothing lasts forever. When I say service will suffer, it will. Its a steady decline that is already underway. Just to stick with the trash truck example, they leak trash, they leak hydraulic fluid, they break down. Most of them are 15 years old and they run 5 says a week. At some point there’s no choice but to replace, and with a lot of equipment across the board, that’s where we are. Looking at this issue closely I’ve been completely convinced this is worthwhile. Even with the inherent inefficiency and dysfunction of any government, we still need to deliver basic, fundamental services, and I know this will help us do it.

    • Jake

      Are you committed then to look at the city work force and right size it? I don’t think the Mayor is, he doesn’t have the spine to make the hard decisions before his 2017 reelection

      • Alex Ihnen

        I’d guess that the size of city government has declined quite a lot under the mayor’s watch. Whether he deserves credit for that or not, is debatable. There absolutely should be a benchmarking effort within city government looking at other cities, potential efficiencies, etc. It would be interesting and important to compare STL city agencies to Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh – all of similar size and age.

        • Tim E

          Part of the issue is maybe the Mayor and BOA are not expressing or showing the numbers of where the city had to tighten the belt after the recession. Scott expresses as much but without the hard numbers it gets to be a trust me comment. That doesn’t go very far. I think a few would have a differing opinion on this bond issue if they understood that city employeed say 8000 or 9000 say in 2006 and was down to 6000 because of the recession. Better yet, Express a commitment to keep or lower labor as long as population remains flat, etc.

          • Alex Ihnen

            Right. Transparent budgeting is a must for St. Louis moving forward. People are working on it, but we’re not there yet.

    • JZ71

      What’s the city’s position on leasing versus buying? I know Denver is a big proponent of it, since maintenance costs increase eponentially as vehicles age. It may also be something to look at if the bond issue is not approved: http://americancityandcounty.com/mag/government_building_fleet_buy

      • Geoff Conrad

        This city uses lease purchases now. The problem is $$. There’s no more money to pay for addtl leases is my understanding. A bond issue brings addtl funds through the small tax increase.

  • moe

    And by the way…don’t you love the threat of cuts in service? never fails.
    And if essential city services are on life support…then why does the BofA continually, week after week after week give away tax abatements and TIFs?

  • moe

    Nothing like waiting till the last minute to explain their position. For months we’ve been hearing that politicians will fully explain their positions….yet here we are 1 day before election before at least Scott has the balls to come out publicly. But he doesn’t get any points for waiting until the day before. Why not last week? 3 weeks ago? The facts haven’t changed. No. Unfortunately, I think this is just the politicians taking the voters for granted…..again.

  • Jake

    Voting no until the city does a workforce study. I’m of belief that the city can cut its workforce down 5-10% and use those savings for these items in the bond issues and much more. We have people working for the city just for the sake of keeping them employed and not because there is a need. I’ve witness this during my 2 years working for the city.
    See the Plan Exam section. 5 guys making $80,000+ doing the work of what 3 can be doing.

    • tekren

      Jake makes a great point. I have and will vote in the future in my communities to rebuild and replace the assets whether it be fire trucks, parks and streets/sidewalks that I value.. However, not only does St. Louis need to rebuild its street it seriously needs to ask if a work force of 6,000 is truly necessary and or say a different workforce. A few more police detectives solving a few more crimes would do wonders.
      .
      The city has a lot to work on from reforming its departments to finding ways to solves crimes. Heck, I’m still wondering if the city passed its business code reform???

    • Geoff Conrad

      According to FY16 Budget online only the chief plan examiner makes over 80,000. The 3 Plan Examiners average less than 48,000, 3 senior examiners average under 64k. And review approx 4,000 permits valued between $350,000,000 and $700,000,000 annually. Did you make your numbers up or someone else? Either way, I don’t really see how you can be taken seriously.

  • MRNHS

    Scott,

    Thank you for offering some insight on this. Was hoping NextSTL would post something, though maybe Alex doesn’t have an opinion (or doesn’t care to share it) since he is a U City resident and people always like to jump on him when he speaks up on issues like this.

    While I understand the city’s reasoning behind issuing the bonds, especially the timing given today’s low interest rate environment, I have to ask a few questions (counterpoints maybe?): First, city residents pay $11 per month for trash/recycling. Shouldn’t the money for new trash trucks come out of that? Seems like double dipping here, no? If trash trucks are needed that badly, issue separate bonds backed by this monthly charge, even if it needs to increase slightly. Why have property taxes fund something we are already paying for?

    Second, where is the accountability for where the money will go? We have, in the past, gotten burned on this. The tax that was to go to Metrolink expansion is, for all we know, gone (or something we will never see). In fact, an additional tax had to be passed just to keep existing service! Who’s to say we won’t pass this and the fire truck money won’t go to something else that presents a “more urgent need”? It seems like, to me, passing specific function bonds would be more beneficial (I would definitely vote for new fire trucks, etc but am weary of the overall ambiguity of the bonds that go to things like “ward improvements”, or clearing houses for NGA, for example).

    Ultimately, I am undecided on this issue. To me, lower property taxes than say, Webster or Kirkwood are actually something that factored into my decision to live in the city and I feel that continuously raising property taxes is eroding that advantage, especially since those cities do not have the earnings tax. At some point, we have to say enough is enough. Not sure this is the time, but I guess we will see.

    I would love to hear Alex’s perspective on this as well.

    Just trying to understand the ins and outs so I can make the most informed decision.

    Thanks, and keep up the great work you are doing!

    • Alex Ihnen

      I, like I think most people, haven’t paid as much attention to this as perhaps I should have. The late timing of this piece is as much my doing as anything else, but I’d add that other news outlets have covered the process fairly well, and more than one have pieces out today summarizing the issue to be voted on tomorrow.

      When I was a city resident (and now working in the city), one of my biggest complaints was a lack of basic services – whether that be recycling (at the time) or broken sidewalks or maintained parks. We have to build (and maintain) a city that will attract people. This takes money. In a broad sense, the city deserves a lot of praise for its financial management. It’s not perfect, but it’s not Detroit. It’s actually quite amazing that the city can have a healthy bond rating.

      Accountability is an issue, but for what it’s worth, these expenditures will need to go through the BOA. That’s where residents can exert pressure and oversight. Like most people, I don’t get excited about raising taxes, but if I could vote, I would support this bond issue.

      In the end, residents of the city (like residents of Kirkwood, or U-City, or Missouri, or wherever) completely lack a holistic picture of taxes paid. It’s simply too difficult to track and compile sales/earnings/property tax plus water/trash/recycling fees, and other payments. I’m sure I’ll move within the St. Louis area again at some point, and while I’ll take a look at taxes, my decision will much more depend on schools, crime, transit access, parks & amenities, neighbors, architecture and the feel of the neighborhood.

      • Guest

        Seems like wise observation to me. Also seems too many want “something for nothing”. The city has got to keep up and maintain services…this is where money should go for residents sake, making it lucrative to attract business and residents. Some are stupid enough to think a new football stadium will accomplish this. Building a new football stadium draws no one but spectators who’ll return to the suburbs after the game and when football’s not in season, where are these people? We need to get our priorities straight around here.