The next time you buy something in the City of St. Louis, take note of the sales tax at the bottom of the receipt. A portion of that tax has been the city’s primary means of funding infrastructure improvements since 1993. Thirty years later, the process for allocating that tax funding, called “Ward Capital,” is being reconsidered. Here’s why that number on your receipt matters, how the funding is currently being used and why the funding process needs to change.
The City of St. Louis currently has a ½-cent sales tax in place. This tax collects, on average, $8 million per year for capital improvements in the city. That sum is currently the City’s primary means of funding infrastructure improvements in all 28 wards.
At the beginning of each fiscal year, the $8 million total is split into 28 equal parts and distributed evenly to each ward. That’s about $300,000 per year, per ward, to be spent on capital improvement projects—filling potholes, replacing streetlights, street trees, improving sidewalks, etc.
If an alderperson chooses to spend their Ward Capital, they must first submit a project proposal. Once the project is approved, the alderperson takes the necessary funding from their pot of accrued Ward Capital and gives it right back to a city department. Ninety-eight percent of the Ward Capital from all 28 wards ends up in the hands of the Streets Department.
The current system is convoluted. It also further divides our city.
Our streets do not stop and start at ward boundaries, nor do each of these wards have the same needs. This system allocates funding equally, not equitably, and results in fractured, short-term solutions applied at the whims of 28 politicians.
Let’s revisit the $300,000 per ward. That sounds like a lot of money, but according to St. Louis Board of Aldermen President Megan Green, recent traffic calming projects around Tower Grove Park cost over $1 million. Her ward received a grant for that work, but had Green relied solely on ward capital, she would have had to sit on her yearly allocation for at least four years to save enough money for those few improvements, and no other projects in her ward, such as street lighting or dumpster replacement, would have been funded in that timeframe.
In a recent interview with KSDK, Alderpersons Joe Vaccaro (Ward 23) and Sharon Tyus (Ward 1) also decried the system. Vaccaro, who consistently spends nearly all of his Ward Capital, is suspicious of his colleagues who sit on their funding. “’You can tell when you leave my ward,’ he said, pointing across the bridge into the 24th Ward. ‘This side’s paved. That side’s not.’”
Meanwhile, Tyus, who chairs the City’s Streets, Traffic, and Refuse Committee, has saved up nearly $2 million in Ward Capital over the years. Tyus has previously claimed obstacles to spending the money on her desired projects.
“‘They won’t spend it,’ she said at a board meeting in December. ‘They haven’t. I’ve been requesting. I can show you the letter.'”https://www.ksdk.com/article/news/politics/heres-how-st-louis-aldermen-spent-ward-capital-funds/63-ca47add9-7777-492c-80c6-ca049cd48515
Currently, alderpersons have $8 million in accumulated ward capital money that could be in use to repair our infrastructure.
Whether they’re saving money for one big project or spending it on immediate needs, it’s clear that the current system leaves alders with no choice but to apply a patchwork of fixes to a city-wide network.
“Piecemeal solutions to a crisis that touches our entire city sets us up to fail time and time again,” said Mayor Tishuara Jones in October.
In her Riverfront Times Op-Ed, Mayor Jones hinted at a bigger-picture need, for which Trailnet has been desperately advocating—the need for a comprehensive plan in the City of St. Louis.
Ward-by-ward “piecemeal solutions” prevent the city from effectively planning for a safer, more accessible transportation network. If the Streets Department doesn’t know what projects lie ahead—if city departments are paralyzed by the inaction of individual leaders—they are not afforded the time or resources to plan for long-term fixes, staffing needs, or equipment purchases.
If the city continues to react only to the small-scale symptoms (potholes, crumbling curbs, etc.) of a large-scale, decades-old problem, our streets will never be safe for people outside of cars.
Whatever the new comprehensive system is, it needs to take into account the areas of greatest need.
Trailnet recently completed a full sidewalk assessment of The Ville and Greater Ville neighborhoods—the first complete study of its kind in the St. Louis area. Trailnet’s Community Planner walked over 30 miles of sidewalk, marking sections that were ADA-non-compliant, inaccessible or nonexistent. Forty-seven percent of the 61 miles of sidewalk assessed in The Ville and Greater Ville were in need of significant repair.
This study is emblematic of the largest issue with the current system—different wards have different needs. Trailnet’s annual Crash Reports identify the highest crash corridors across the city. Our analysis of crash data consistently reveals a glaring truth: Black and minority communities suffer from a disproportionate amount of traffic violence. The state of the streets, sidewalks and intersections on the Northside is one of the reasons why that disparity exists.
As a result of decades of disinvestment, Northside streets and sidewalks need far more attention and funding. It is unacceptable that all of these areas currently receive proportionate funding to address disproportionate realities.
The northside wards are the areas of highest need—the areas where it’s unsafe to walk, bike or catch a bus. These are the areas that must be identified as the highest priorities in the city’s comprehensive plan. These are the areas that must receive the largest investment from the ½-cent sales tax.
A number of systems might work more effectively than the current one. What matters most is that the current system be replaced by something better, something equitable, something that makes sense.
Trailnet’s recommendation is that the city do away with the ward-based capital improvement system. Instead, centralize the funding structure under one city department, and ensure that the money is being invested based on the infrastructure needs identified by a future comprehensive street study, as well as demographics such as poverty levels and car ownership. Treat the whole body, not its disparate parts, in pursuit of a safe system for everyone.
If you agree, contact the President of the Board’s office and your alderperson to voice your opinion. As the city moves from 28 to 14 wards this year, there will be many changes. A new and improved system for funding infrastructure improvements must be one of those changes, so that when you pay that sales tax, you know your money is being used to make our whole city better.
Trailnet will continue to advocate for a new system that better serves the people moving around our city. To stay informed on our advocacy work in the City, subscribe to our newsletters here.