Lessons From the Failure of Prop 1

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Trust. It is the single most important component of a successful democracy. People must have trust that government is working for the people and by the people in order for a true democracy to function. In St. Louis, we’ve shown we rarely work for the people and mostly are not representative of the people.

Trust, or lack-thereof, is a theme we have heard on a recurring basis over the last year. Most of the local and national dialogue has been about a lack of trust between police, the law enforcement arm of government, and the communities they serve. However, what the failure of Prop 1, the $180 million bond initiative in St. Louis, shows is a larger problem with a lack of trust in our entire governmental system. Those of us in elected office must acknowledge that we have been put on notice. On August 4th, the people of St. Louis came out and said ENOUGH!

I don’t take offense to the lack of trust. We in government have certainly have done little to build the faith of the citizens of the City of St. Louis that government is really working for the people, and not for special interests and the 1%.

We Need to Do Better.
Just in the last couple months, we have mortgaged two city buildings to the tune of $20 million to give profits to a developer with a lack-luster record while refusing to have the political courage to raise the minimum wage for the working poor in the City of St. Louis.

We have circumvented the people by securing private grant funding to implement the Real Time Intelligence Center without having a community conversation about its impact on civil liberties or the development of a comprehensive public safety plan with community input. At the same time, our murder rate continues to climb.

We continue to hand out tax abatement after tax abatement to major companies and developers who are not doing work in blighted areas while cheating the city of we-don’t-know-how-much-because-it’s-not-tracked tax dollars.

We have ruled that the proposed new stadium is “adjacent enough” to the current stadium that the bonds for the stadium we are still currently paying on can be extended without a vote of the people.

We hold a special election, which are historically low-voter-turnout elections, in hopes of passing a bond issue without informing the people (other than through vague mailers with platitudes and stock photos) of what is really in it.

At the same time, study after study has been released about the fact that 40% of children in the City of St. Louis live in poverty, and we are in the top five cities in the nation with the worst income disparity between African Americans and Caucausians. Day after day for nearly a year our most disenfranchised have taken to the streets asking government to work FOR them. We have ignored the requests.

We have failed at transparency. We have failed at accountability. We have failed at fiscal responsibility. We have failed at community engagement. We have failed at representative democracy.

It’s not surprising that the bond would fail too. After all, how we can expect the community to have our backs if time and again we show that we do not have theirs?

A Path Forward.
So what’s next? Where do we go from here?

First, admit the err of our ways. We need to admit our failures as a government and make a genuine commitment to change. We need to acknowledge that we have not been working for all members of our community, especailly those with the least access to a seat at the table.

Second, increase transparency. We need to be more transparent in our decision making. We need the voting history of all members of the Board of Alderman published on-line within 48 hours of each vote.

Third, increase fiscal accountability. We need to scrub our city budget, identify inefficiencies, and develop mechanisms for streamlining duplicative services. We need to increase coordination between city departments and become proactive rather than reactive in our delivery of services. We need to include fiscal notes with all legislation passed by the Board of Alderman. We need a comprehensive accounting of all the tax revenue we are foregoing as a result of abatements and incentives and set caps in non-blighted areas.

Fourth, engage the community. We need to develop comprehensive plans for addressing the disparities, poverty, and crime that is prevelant in our community. We need to show a genuine effort toward improving the quality of life for all in our community. We need to raise the minimum wage for the working poor in the City of St. Louis. We need each committee of the Board of Alderman to hold public imput hearings on any major legislation.

Fifth, develop a GO Bond that will pass. We need to acknowledge that we do have significant capital needs that need to be met. We need to pass a bond, so we need to go back to the drawing board. We need to develop a bond measure with a complete public accounting of all expenditures. No pork. No possibility of McKee profiting. No possibility of stadium funding. No vague “technology upgrades” for police. Nothing that is going to continue to strain the relationship between government and the people we are elected to serve. We need areal, transparent bond measure that shows a commitment that government is working for the people.

We need to live by our commitments. Nothing less.

*this item first appeared at medium.com and reposted with the author’s permission

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  • gmichaud

    I am glad my new alderwomen is Megyan Green. She appears to be sensitive to public needs.

    That being said I cannot vote for any increase of property taxes in the future unless there is far better oversight by the Board of Alderman, the Mayor and city government

    An example is the tax abatement program of the city that gives 25 million, and maybe as much as 40 million dollars to an elite class of the wealthy and insiders.

    The City government has no idea of the real number because tax abated projects are dropped from reassessment during their time in abatement. No one, and I mean no one in city government has a clue what the tax abatements really cost.

    My friend Gerry Connolly has done a great deal of research on this over the years. What little bit I know about the program comes from him. I know he has had to work hard to compile any information about the program. Information is unavailable to the
    public and it is more or less the same for city government.

    To his credit Alderman Roddy is attempting to have some info complied, but it remains to be seen if it will be made public or change anything.

    The point of the tax abatement is to encourage people to move or stay in St. Louis. This reduction in taxes is widely used by city employees both in past and currently, including heads of city department to firefighters. Since city employees have to live in St. Louis City to have their jobs, they are gaming the system. Beyond
    that it is difficult to know just how many people the program attracts that
    wouldn’t move to St Louis anyway. Certainly a question to ask is whether or not
    these homes that are selling for 200, 300 grand or more wouldn’t sell anyway? There
    are homes in the City that sell for that amount without tax credits.

    In any case it is questionable to be spending 25 million to increase the population of the city by 10,000, but more likely the true increase is much lower, probably around 2,000, if that.

    What this means is that the tax abatement program is welfare for the wealthy. I did rough calculations based on census data and such and the average middle class, elderly, or low income homeowner is contributing around 150 dollars a year in property taxes to support the wealthy and insiders. How absurd is that, especially considering is that 200 or 400 grand house is just as likely to sell otherwise. (note my various estimates are just that, remember not even city government knows the exact amount the tax abatements are costing the city)

    The Board of Alderman, nor the Mayor can mount an argument for keeping the tax abatements There is almost no information to make decisions. I personally think the program should be shut down. How can it be that the middle class and elderly are supplying financial benefits to the wealthy?, it is obscene and ridiculous.

    Now to a few smaller points. Ms Grass of the city was paid almost 600 grand of severance when she retired, this is in addition to a generous pension. The City says they have changed things, and previous agreements are valid.
    I say no, 90 per cent of America is lucky to get a free lunch and a pat on the back when they retire, the 10 per cent left are the corporate execs that control the money or other government entities like St. Louis who think taxpayer money is their personal piggy bank. It was a corrupt, insider arrangement when it was devised and should not stand.

    So Ms Grass and her bonus is two and part of a third trash truck Alderman Ogilvie cites in his plea to pass the bond issue. (Trash trucks are $250,000 each he says in his article).

    Finally Sharon Carpenter and her collection of both her salary and her pension . I mistakenly thought there would be a quick legislative fix allowing someone who got a full time job with the city could,and by law should. suspend his/her pension until finally retired, then the pension can restart.

    Yet nothing from government, no solutions to what seems to
    be a simple legislative fix. To help Alderman Ogilvie out, if you add Ms Grass
    and Ms Carpenter over the course of her term, we are up to 3 new trash trucks

    In short I doubt these areas are the only areas the Board of
    Alderman and the Mayor are failing to monitor, as a result it is difficult to
    know the extent of the weakness in budget management. (The latest revelation is the free passes at
    Lambert Airport, reported by the Post Dispatch)

    It is hard to justify a tax increase when the evidence
    of a well run city is sparse. If Alderwoman Greens Path Forward is
    implemented, then maybe some of this can be corrected and the public can feel
    like the financial process in the City is rigorous.

    Ms Green is only one person though and it doesn’t mean business as usual will not keep happening. St. Louis has many needs that should be financed, but until City government officials stop using The City to enrich themselves and their friends, it is hard to justify handing over any more tax money.

    And finally I think Ms Greens suggesting a path forward should engage the public is correct. The City does not know how to engage the public.

  • HawkSTL

    With 7% turnout, it is a bit of a reach to state that any single issue led to the Proposition 1 defeat. I voted against it because: 1) the City has a $1 billion annual budget for a population of 318,000 — the money is there to buy new fire trucks; 2) the City just created a bike czar position, but can’t hire additional police officers? — the priorities seem to be misguided; and 3) the City assessor attempted to significantly raise my property taxes this year for no reason other than my yard “looked nice.” All of this, and I have the pleasure of paying high tuition for my kids to live in the City and get a good education. The City needs to get serious about budgeting before I will voluntarily give it any more money.

    • jhoff1257

      I don’t disagree with what you wrote here, but it is worth noting that part of the reason St. Louis has such a large budget is because of they way the region is organized. You look at cities with a high cost of service or employee to citizen ratio and most of them (STL, DC, San Fran, Baltimore, etc) all have one thing in common. They are independent cities in a larger region. St. Louis City, and others like it, shoulder a lot of the cost that most other cities would normally have spread out at the county level. Since the city essentially functions as it’s own county it has to fund and maintain all of that in addition to city services. That’s why there is both a St. Louis Police Department and a City Sheriff’s Department. There are several other divisions and jobs that wouldn’t exist if the City was within a larger county. St. Louis City also sees much of the tourism, conventions and sports events. And nearly all of the regions premier museums, attractions, and historic neighborhoods are located east of Skinker Boulevard. The City also has one of the largest % increases in daytime population in the US. We could also get into the fact that the City is the only government in the region that provides homeless services and the decades of disinvestment that leads to high crime and crumbling infrastructure and all the expenses that come with that.

      All of this costs lots of money. And when you’re the only part of the region really providing any of it, or suffering from many of these problems, it gets expensive. And the bike position is a bit questionable. Why not just have a “livability director” that takes care of ADA issues, bike and ped issues, and other livability stuff? But let’s be honest, that one person’s salary wouldn’t come close to putting a single officer with all the necessary equipment out on the street.

      Things in St. Louis desperately need to change. The City can focus on the crime, infrastructure, and other physical problems, but in terms of bringing down the cost of service there is going to have to be a seismic shift in policy at the regional level.

      • HawkSTL

        jhofff1257 — You have a point that the City’s cost is somewhat higher as an independent city, but that cost is only incrementally higher. I don’t think that anyone can name a county (especially in the Midwest) that has 300,000 people, an annual budget of over $1 billion, and yet can’t afford some new fire trucks. There is a lot of pork in the City budget (take home vehicles, ward-specific slush funds, and duplicative positions (an example is the treasurer, comptroller, and collector of revenue positions — all with separate staffs too)). Also the regional (at least in MO) museum tax takes care of the Zoo, Science Center & History Museum. They do not require City Hall funds and are self sufficient.
        Therefore, the budget is a City issue and is not a regional issue. It is not hard to buy new fire trucks with a $1 billion budget. However, the City is unwilling to make any choices. Its only solution is to periodically ask for more property taxes. And, when you only have 300,000 people who already are overtaxed (1% earnings tax, high property taxes for inadequate schools, higher sales taxes, and, for some neighborhoods, additional property taxes for private security because of an overtaxed police department), that is not the solution. It should be obvious (City resident or otherwise) to anyone.

        • thomas h benton

          When you buy a car, do you pay for the entire thing up front? Plus, the fire truck costs way into six figures. It’s not unreasonable for something that to be included in the bond issue.

          • I’m for the bond increase, but I also think our fire departments need to embrace the difference between the responsibilities of the past and their current responsibilities. Less 500K firetrucks and more smaller access vehicles for non-fire-related calls. Looking over the bond issue, there isn’t any transparency regarding why they need new trucks. I did like seeing refurbished trucks on the list though.

            All that said – I’m not sure what their fire response protocol is for the city FD?

          • HawkSTL

            That is a good example. When you need a new car, do you budget for the purchase based on your existing income, or do you go to management and ask for a salary increase in the amount of the cost of the new vehicle? Some common sense will fix the City budget.

  • matimal

    If there is one change St. Louis could make for the better, it is ending the aldermanic system and having a city council elected at-large.

    • Alex Ihnen

      I’d love to see a mix – five wards and four at-large seats.

      • STLEnginerd

        Not a bad idea, though i would probably go with a larger number of each. Also as many wards as possible should have a “piece” of the central corridor within their boundary so that all are invested in its continued growth.

        • Pete M

          I was surprised to hear Morgan Ford St. in Tower Grove South has a different alderperson for each side of the street. I figured something like that seemed counter productive but the way you describe it may be beneficial?

      • jhoff1257

        That’s one nice thing about KC. 6 council districts covering ~350sq/mi of land with another 6 elected at large for a City Council of 12 members.

        The council districts her are MASSIVE.

  • JAE

    It doesn’t help trust to have Slay in the Post-Dispatch today saying we can afford to build Kroenke a new stadium, and that “the city does not have to break even on its investment in the new stadium”. Enough money for a stadium, but not for fire trucks?

    • jhoff1257

      Yeah, what the hell is up with that? Citizens are going to the polls to decide whether or not to fix fire trucks and police cars and the Mayor is quoted as basically saying “not sure if this stadium will ever even break even or make any money for the city, but it’s a great investment nonetheless!”

      Jesus Christ.

  • JZ71

    “Ward money” is a symptom of a much larger problem, that each ward is somehow, somewhat of an independent fiefdom, run at the pleasure of the all-knowing, all-powerful alderman. Successful cities and successful regions tackle problems (and grow) together. St. Louis, city, is mired in racial politics. St. Louis, county, is mired in too many “cities”. And, St. Louis, the region, will continue to be held back as long as where you went to high school continues to make a difference!

    • moe

      Yes, indeed.

    • Alex Ihnen

      Yes. I think good aldermen do good things with ward money, but much of it is wasted, IMO. This is partially because of poor decisions by aldermen, and partially because it’s not spent on any overarching plan for the city – it’s not contributing to a larger vision of any sort. I know proponents of ward money believe that without it some wards would be ignored and lack development…well, what exactly would they call the current state of development across wards?

    • The use of ward allocations is a standard practice among major cities, but I agree in this case — the Board adding that extra bit of meat to the bill was a weak-willed, disappointing move.

      You’re seeing some aldermen begin holding inclusive budget meetings with their constituents to determine how to allocate their annual funding. Some go a step further with constituent “ward walks” to identify infrastructural deficiencies in their service area.

      I can’t imagine its easy to spread that relatively meager funding around to satisfy the majority of constituents with meaningful, necessary projects and improvements. Personally, I’d like to see it as standard practice each alderman produces a budget detailing exactly how these funds are used.

  • CWE1959

    I’d be very interested to see the demographics of those that voted on this proposition. I would not be surprised if there was a higher no vote on this proposition amongst African American voters. Lack of trust of the government is certainly an issue, but race continues to plague this city. I’m an African American physician in my 30s and have witnessed four professional friends move to places like Dallas, and Atlanta within the last month. We are losing young talented professionals daily. The decades of racist policy, systematic neglect of African American communities, failure to focus on healthy families/high performing public schools/economic development, and white flight have doomed this city. The idea that Mayor Slavery and the majority of alderpersons will change their tune without demand from the citizenry is unlikely. I’m very interested to see the representation of African American alderpersons (i.e. representing the agenda of the voiceless) once half the alderperson position are eliminated within the next few years. Will this city repeat the same old tune. Mayor Slavery (South of Carondelet Park) and County Executive Steve Stenger (South County) both live as far away from African Americans as possible. They both exhibit white flight like behavior. Is it any wonder why their policies aren’t aligned with their political rhetoric?

    • Chris

      I and about 9 of my white friends (all under 30) voted no due to the nonsense adds ons like $10m in Ward $, NGA/McKee and demo/stabilization $. Would have voted yes if it was just for fire, police equipment and repairs and city hall/ other city building repairs

      • jhoff1257

        I think it would have passed if just the NGA portion had been removed. I also agree about the ward money. I disagree with you on the stabilization fund. I can’t say for sure where you stand on preservation in St. Louis (I am a strong supporter) but a stabilization fund would saved Cupples 7…among many, many others. I think a fund like that would be worth having for high merit buildings in danger of coming down.

  • Tysalpha

    While I agree with much of what Alderwoman Green says we need to do, it’s disingenuous to not point out that a majority (61%) of the voters approved of the bond. The bond measure only failed because it needed a 2/3 supermajority to pass. In a city that’s roughly 50/50 Black and White, clearly the measure had at least some support (if not bare majority support) from both sides.

    That being said, yes our government needs to do more to be transparent with and responsive to its constituents. Totally agree.

    • Daron

      Yeah, I thought the use of terms like “rejection” and “enough” were a bit inappropriate for something three out of five people supported. Not just here but in stltoday and the business journal too.

  • Frank Absher

    If it’s so blatantly obvious to this alderwoman, why can’t our other elected officials understand it?

    • moe

      It’s only obvious AFTER the fact. Megan did little to no outreach in her own ward and waited, like Scott Ogilvie did on this site, until days before the election. Which is sad. I was sitting on the fence on this issue and I received little to convince me and what little there was were rumors and opinions of social media sites. There is plenty of failure to go around.

  • Tim E

    OK, I will start this off. St. Louis Business Journals quoted Darlene Greene in this mornings article on the bond failure that the city has $31 million in outstanding balances for ward improvements. So big trust item there. Why did Board feel like it needed to take on and go borrow another $10 million for ward improvements? Not sure if I understand the quote, whether city can go spend that $31 million or the other way around & it is debt already taken on. Either way, It seems like some of the small things like the extra ward money added together kept the measure from getting across the line.