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Groups plan to protest St. Louis plan for tax breaks for Peabody Coal

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 11, 2010 - Two fairly new activist groups -- Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment and Climate Action St. Louis -- are organizing a protest this morning at St. Louis City Hall in a bid to delay aldermanic action on a measure to give tax breaks to Peabody Coal, which is considering whether to keep its headquarters downtown.

Leaders say that their members will dresse in suits and ties, and other corporate attire, to reflect their tongue-in-cheek theme of "Billionaires for Peabody."

"We feel the city of St. Louis is funding continued corporate greed,'' said Hannah Allison, one of the leaders of Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, also known as MORE.

The measure in question proposes a 10-year tax abatement on up to $11 million in improvements to Peabody's downtown operation -- currently in the Gateway One building -- and as much as $50 million in new equipment. There also would be a 50 percent tax break on any earnings and payroll taxes for any new Peabody employees located downtown. The firm currently has 500 people at its corporate offices.

Peabody’s downtown lease is set to expire in 2012, and city development officials have said the incentives would show the city's eagerness to retain Peabody. The corporation is among the few major companies still headquartered in St. Louis or in the region. Peabody also has been very public about exploring its post-2012 options for its headquarters.

Still, Allison with MORE said, "It seems that when we're in a budget crisis and trying to fund schools, it's kind of crazy'' to offer tax breaks to Peabody, a $6 billion corporate giant.

Dan DiLeo with Climate Action said opponents were particularly concerned because it appeared that the legislation was being expedited without adequate public discussion or debate. Officials with the city public schools, which will be affected by the tax abatements, have yet to know the details, he said.

He also asserted that it made little sense to offer incentives to a firm that specialized in coal, which worldwide account for a significant chunk of the pollutants blamed for global warning. DiLeo added that his group was disappointed in the aldermen's swift consideration of the tax breaks, particularly in the wake of Mayor Francis Slay's previous statements in favor of protecting the environment and expanding the use of cleaner forms of energy.

Friday's protest leaders say they are trying to be realistic, by asking the aldermen to at least slow down any approval and debate the issue in public. "At minimum, we'd like to see more discussion and public awareness," Allison said.

MORE has been around only a few months. The group burst onto the local scene in January when about 50 activists -- many also dressed in suits -- disrupted in January the annual dinner of the Regional Chamber and Growth Association. The protesters called for more action to create more local jobs.

Several of its leaders, such as Jeff Ordower, formerly were with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), which has closed its operations in St. Louis.

Jonathon Prouty, spokesman for the Missouri Republican Party -- a longtime critic of ACORN -- says that MORE is simply "the reincarnation of ACORN in St. Louis."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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