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Government, Politics & Issues

Bond for capital, safety needs on track for August vote, but challenges remain

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An extreme closeup of U.S. currency.

A $180 million bond issue to address the city's capital needs remains on track for an August vote.

The Ways and Means committee approved the measure Thursday by a 7-1 vote. The committee's chairman, Alderman Steve Conway, was the lone no vote.

The Board of Aldermen must finish their work on the measure in the next two weeks to guarantee an August vote. It then requires approval by a 2/3 majority. If approved, the owner of a $125,000 house and a $15,000 car would pay an estimated $50 extra a year in property taxes.

Where the money goes

The newest version of the bond issue is mostly identical to one that stalled last year. Board president Lewis Reed, the bill's only sponsor, left out funding for Complete Streets, a tool lending library, sidewalk repair and bike infrastructure and a bike-sharing program. The latest version also does not include $3 million for a controversial real-time crime center, but does include funds for a new dispatching center. 

Critical needs for the city, like new fire trucks and ambulances, updates at the city's two jails, and street repair, make up about 85 percent of the $180 million in bonds that will be sold. Conway, in voting "no," called the remaining $25 million nothing more than pork.

"It's gimmes and buy-offs to whatever groups that want it," he said. "And what you’ve done is you have jeopardized the ability of this bill to pass."

Reed, the sponsor, took a much different take.

"Ask everyone to write down things you like or most want to have, and nearly every one of those lists would be different," he said.

The debate on the measure laid bare some of the divisions supporters will have to overcome to keep the bill on track for an August vote. The $10 million that will go to aldermen to do capital improvements in their wards is currently divided up by the acreage a ward covers, minus parks and cemeteries. Alderman Antonio French was an architect of that language.

"When you talk about things like street repair, things that those funds go toward, I think it's been inherently unfair when you have a ward like the 2nd, which is geographically the largest ward in the city," French said. "They have the most streets and they get the same exact money as the 28th Ward, which is geographically mostly Forest Park. We really put an unfair burden on those wards that have a larger number of streets." 

Conway, whose ward covers parts of Botanical Heights, Shaw, Southwest Garden and Tower Grove East and South, wasn't impressed.

"Why don't we do it based on property taxes collected, so that the wards that pay in the most would get the correct amount back?" he said. "The real estate tax bills just went out in the 8th Ward, and people are not happy. I think they would want to believe that if they are paying more, they would like to get their fair share."

An amendment that would have divided the $10 million capital dollars going to the wards evenly across the 28 wards failed.

National Geospatial Intelligence Agency

With his latest version of the bond, Reed also hoped to address a controversy that emerged over $15 million in funds to repair streets around the Pruitt-Igoe site in north St. Louis.

The land sits within the footprint of Paul McKee's massive redevelopment plan for north city. Aldermen did not like the idea of investing taxpayer dollars into repairs for the street grid that would allow McKee to sell the land he owns at a higher price. Now, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency is eyeing 554 parcels of land just north of there as a possible relocation site.  

Credit courtesy National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

To avoid a repeat of the controversy, Reed got an amendment adopted that says the repairs will not be made unless the NGA says it has chosen the north city site. The amendment also makes it possible for the city to claw back any windfall McKee might come into if he executes his option to purchase the Pruitt-Igoe site and then turns around and sells it after the improvements are made.

Patrick Brown, the deputy chief of staff to Mayor Francis Slay, said the mayor supported the concept of the clawback, but was not sure if the language accomplished that goal. 

There are land mines to keeping the measure on track. Aldermen must suspend their own rules at least once in the process and, as the civilian oversight board debate showed, that step is never guaranteed. Amendments proposed by aldermen could also derail support for the measure as written.

Procter & Gamble expansion

Also on Thursday, the Ways and Means committee gave Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble Co.  the first of several approvals needed to expand its facility in north St. Louis.

The company wants to purchase the city's north refuse site for $1.5 million. It's also committing $1.3 million for environmental remediation. The city currently houses and maintains about 50 trash trucks at the location. It was also the site of a trash incinerator.

"Procter & Gamble's plants compete among each other," said Alderman Dionne Flowers. "So far this plant, St. Louis, is the number one plant amongst all the plants. This expansion will allow them not only to add employees, but stay in that location and be able to expand." The expansion will bring about 200 jobs to her 2nd Ward.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

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