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Voters to weigh in Tuesday on $180 million city bond issue

A sampling of mailers sent by Reinvest STL, a committee supporting the city's $180 million bond issue.
(Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio)

Voters in St. Louis will go to the polls Tuesday to decide whether the city should borrow $180 million to take care of long-delayed maintenance and other capital needs.

The general obligation bond got on the August ballot at the last possible minute. If it passes, bonds will be sold in 2015, and again in 2017. The city estimates the owner of a $125,000 house would pay about $50 more in property taxes each year.

"We endured two major recessions, and we managed to keep the city going and maintain all the basic services," said Todd Waelterman, the operations director for Mayor Francis Slay. "It’s now time to go back and fix up some of this infrastructure and these capital needs that we’ve forgone during those hard times."

Here's how the proposed spending breaks down:

  • $28 million for new vehicles and other equipment for the fire department.
  • $12.2 million in repairs to fire houses and other fire department buildings.
  • $5.4 million for police department projects. Funding for the controversial real-time crime center is not included.
  • $30 million for work at the city's corrections facilities, including new security doors at the medium security facility known as the Workhouse.
  • $8 million to demolish vacant buildings, plus an additional $6 million to stabilize and preserve city-owned buildings.
  • $18.8 million for road and bridge projects.
  • $30 million in repairs to other city buildings.
  • $4 million for a city-administered home repair program.
  • $15 million for infrastructure improvements around the proposed National Geospatial Intelligence Agency site in north St. Louis. The money will not be spent unless the federal government picks the north side location
  • $2.6 million in improvements to the city's recreation centers.
  • $10 million for ward capital improvements. Each aldermen will get about $357,000 to spend on projects in their ward.

Every aldermen but one voted in favor of the measure. Mayor Francis Slay has gone to neighborhood meetings to speak in support of the bond issue. Reinvest STL, a campaign committee connected to Slay strategist Richard Callow, has spent at least $89,000 on mailers. A majority of the donations came from the region's biggest employers.

But a victory is far from guaranteed.  The measure requires 2/3 approval, rather than a simple majority.

Though she is supportive of the bond issue overall, comptroller Darlene Green issued a statement expressing  her concern about the $10 million in ward capital.

"Taxpayers fund capital improvements for the 28 Aldermanic Wards with the 1/2-cent sales tax at the rate of $8 million per year and will so do every year," she wrote. "When you have $31 million in the bank, and $8 million coming in every year, it is hard to justify to the taxpayers that you need an addition $10 million to pay yourself back for reallocating funds to balance the budget at a time when every city, county, state and individual households were tightening their belts during a major recession."

Former comptroller Virvus Jones, who remains a powerful political force, took to Twitter to express his opposition.

"It's a matter of priorities," Jones said in a phone interview. "We have a serious problem in our community of income disparity, and that drives all of the problems that we currently have. Demolishing more vacant buildings and buying more dump trucks and paving streets will not change the core problem of what's causing crime in north St. Louis."

Jones has also taken his message to ward and neighborhood gatherings. He said his presentation convinced the 15th Ward Democrats not to endorse the bond issue, and that residents of Tower Grove East were receptive to what he said.

Waelterman, the operations director, said making capital improvements will allow officials to concentrate on addressing those broader systemic issues, rather than day-to-day maintenance.

A sampling of tweets from the last week show how divided opinion remains.

Voters last approved a general obligation bond in 2006, when the city sold $13 million to finance repairs to the city's flood wall, and make street and bridge improvements.  The last major bond issue was 1999.

Other election items

The bond issue is the only item on the ballot in the city of St. Louis. 

In St. Louis County, voters in Black Jack and Norwood Court will select members of their legislative bodies. Four people are running for a term on the Riverview Fire Protection District.

In St. Charles County, the city of Foristell is asking voters to approve a 1-cent-a-gallon fuel tax to cover street maintenance, and the Francis Howell school district is requesting a tax increase of $.90/$100 of assessed valuation to help cover operating expenses and pay for new technology.

There are no elections scheduled in Jefferson or Franklin counties.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

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

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