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Strategy concerns, ghosts of propositions past trip up plans to fund new St. Louis police officers

St. Louis Metropolitan Police officers raise their weapons at a preshift meeting 3.23.15
File photo | Katelyn Petrin | St. Louis Public Radio

Funding to put additional police on the St. Louis streets likely won't go to voters until November.

The city's public safety committee took more than three hours of testimony Wednesday on the measures that set up the funding mechanisms for the new officers. But in the end, lawmakers took no action, which likely scuttles the hope of Mayor Francis Slay to ask voters for their approval in August.

The debate, at times almost circular in nature, reflected the variety of concerns the aldermen had, both with the funding mechanisms and the plan for new officers itself.

As proposed, three revenue streams would funnel into an account specifically created to "pay costs related to hiring more and retaining police officers, investing in programs to prevent and reduce crime, and training police officers in community policing, customer service, bias recognition, mental health and policing a diverse city."

  • Board Bill 51 directs any money raised from the enforcement of red light cameras toward the expense of new officers. Supporters say it will raise about $3.5 million a year. The city's program is currently in legal limbo -- the Missouri Supreme Court could rule this month on whether the cameras are constitutional.
  • Board Bill 52 increases the city's motor vehicle taxes, which is forecast to generate about $2 million in revenue
  • Board Bill 53 would raise to 10 percent from the current 5 percent the tax on the revenue generated by private garages open for public parking. That rate was last adjusted in 1958, and a spokeswoman for Mayor Francis Slay said, even with the increase, St. Louis' rate would still be well below those of other cities like Chicago and Philadelphia. Budget officials project it will raise $2.6 million a year.

But from the start, aldermen expressed a fear that the city would sell the increases to voters as a way to put more police on the street, then direct it elsewhere. 
"I'm for more police," said Alderman Joe Vaccaro, whose son is a homicide detective with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. "I don't think there's anyone out there who doesn't want more police. But I do think that given our past history, we need to be more sound in what we're doing." 

Vaccaro was referencing Proposition S, a 2008 measure that boosted sales taxes a half of a percent to fund "the operation of public safety departments of the city, including hiring more police officers, police and firefighter compensation, prosecuting more criminals, nuisance crimes and problem properties, and funding police and fire pensions." It passed with about 55 percent of the vote, but many of the promises made to encourage a yes vote never occurred.

"Two of the selling points, and I think why most people voted in favor of this thing at the time was the additional police officers, to 1,400 officers, which we never got to, and the $1 million specifically going to crime prevention programs," said Alderman Antonio French. "We've never gotten the full $1 million. We put specific language in there, and we don't make it happen."

French suggested that it be clear the tax and red light camera revenue would go to the salary, benefits and first-year equipment for new officers, eliminating any reference to crime reduction programs. Alderman Donna Baringer, the sponsor, supported the change.

Strategy disputes

As the meeting continued, the conversation turned to crime-fighting strategies and whether more officers would accomplish the that goal. That left Alderman Megan-Ellyia Green a bit puzzled as to why her colleagues wanted to remove funding for crime prevention programs from the equation. She suggested directing 75 percent of the revenue toward new officers and 25 percent toward crime programs.

French also made it clear that he didn't think new officers were the answer to violent crime.

"I know that no matter how many officers I give Chief Dotson, I'm not going to see bike cops in my neighborhood. Our neighborhoods just aren't a priority," he said. "There are a handful of neighborhoods that over a five to six year period are always the ones that see the most violent crime. And so I think those areas need to be targeted with resources, not just a two-week hot-spot period, but months and years."

Issues of timing

The measures must be on Mayor Slay's desk by May 26 to get on the August ballot. Wednesday's delay made that deadline nearly impossible to meet.

A November election, Dotson said, would make it that much harder to get crime down in St. Louis.

"The men and women that are in the cars are doing a great job. But their workload increased by 11 percent," he said. "What I worry about is wearing them out, tiring them out."

Also factoring into the equation is a $180 million bond issue. Aldermen are working on a similarly tight timeline to consider that legislation in time to get it on the August ballot. Many aldermen were concerned that higher property taxes from the bond issue combined with the additional revenue requests for police would scuttle everything. In addition, there are no regularly scheduled elections in August and November, and a special election cost the city $300,000. 

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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