On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh talked with three Democratic candidates seeking to serve as St. Louis Board of Aldermen president.
Joining the discussion were incumbent Lewis Reed, who has held the seat since 2007, and two key challengers: Alderwoman Megan Green, who currently represents the city’s 15th Ward, and state Senator Jamilah Nasheed, whose 5th District includes the eastern half of St. Louis.
The candidates responded to a variety of questions from Marsh and listeners, including the following.
What do you think is the most important issue that you could directly impact as president of the Board of Aldermen?
Green: Of all of [the issues], I think the city budget. The city is not in good financial state. Our CAFR [Comprehensive Annual Financial Report] just came out, which is the net position for the city, and our financial outlook has been getting worse and worse and worse every year. And the reason that the president of the board is so important is because the president along with the mayor and the comptroller oversees the city budget and contract and real estate decisions. And we’re going to have to make some very different decisions with regard to our city budget in order to get us on financial track.
Nasheed: The budget is the most important, powerful piece of legislation that we can deal with on the local level. And what we need to do is begin to use incentives to rebuild north St Louis instead of giving those incentives, the TIF [tax increment financing] dollars, to big development and big corporations. What we need to do is now begin to look at neighborhood development and how we can put TIF dollars toward rebuilding some parts of south side and north side. But again, the biggest impact that I can have as the president of the Board of Aldermen is just having a mouthpiece to be able to look at: How do we do public-private partnerships when it comes to afterschool programs? How do we do public-private partnerships when it comes to being able to get young people the math and science tutoring that they need? I mean, it’s a major mouthpiece that you can have to be able to reduce the crime rate that we’re seeing in the city of St. Louis.
Reed: Essentially, anything that my opponents say they’d like to see more money go toward, we’ve done it. We’ve, through our Prop S funds, we’ve helped over 20,000 kids across the city and set them back on the right path. That was my bill – I did it, got it done. When we look at affordable housing … I was one of the 10 people that created the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Through [that] we've now provided over 1.5 million homeless bed nights, 2,000 affordable housing units, helped over 11,000 families across our city, 8,000 with rent and mortgage help so that those families weren't thrown out of their homes, and over 8,000 kids through afterschool programs and the like. So we've done those things. The City of St Louis, when we look at our credit rating, one of the major things that's missing is an economic-development strategy. So now, I pass an ordinance now that requires the City of St Louis to develop an annual economic-development strategy and to ensure that that strategy is submitted to all of the rating agencies. Why is that important? Because that affects our credit rating and affects our cost for money. But more importantly, Don, we have to have an economy that's on the move. So when you look at an issue like the soccer stadium, it's not a this-or-that sort of decision … we're a city of 320,000 people. That soccer stadium would bring to the city of St. Louis somewhere in the neighborhood of 350,000 people to rent our hotel rooms, shop at our stores and the like. And we could create employment from that. This is why I brought forth the plan Operation Ceasefire and Operation Cure Violence, which has been shown to decrease the violent crime rate in cities across America by up to 50, 60 percent in the first year.
All three of you have plans that to some extent address the root causes of crime in our area. Those solutions will take years to make an impact. In the meantime, what are your plans for addressing crime in the near term?
Green: Actually, a lot of the plans that we've been talking about don't take years. Operation Peacemaker [saw] pretty immediate results because what they recognized is that there's a small group of people that tend to be involved in the majority of gun crimes. And they took a public health approach to it and said, “If we can kind of get a handle around these individuals, get them into jobs and resources and supportive housing and whatever it was that they needed to change their trajectory, we could stop violence from spreading.” And so, while it took five years for a 60 percent overall reduction in crime, there were very immediate impacts that were felt by starting to work with those individuals right away. I will also say, kind of speaking to the triangle model, I think our number-one priority needs to be to keep people out of the criminal-justice system – provide those supports – because we do know that the doors of opportunity are slammed in people's faces once they enter that system. And so if we can provide the mental health, substance abuse, job training, education that folks need – those early interventions to stop them from ever getting into the system in the first place – that ends up having long-term impacts as well.
Reed: When we look at the issues of public safety, and if we want some immediate change, we would go with Operation Ceasefire, or Operation Cure Violence. That model has proven to work all across the country. Operation Peacemaker is a pilot program that they’re trying in one city, but it does not have the legacy that this major program has. East St. Louis did a spinoff of a very similar program last year and dropped their murder rate by 42 percent one year. So, you know, if we want to see immediate change, I think we eliminate as many of the unknowns as possible. We're already invested heavily into our drug courts, and, you know, I worked to get the million dollars to the city of St. Louis to address the issue of our opioid abuse and things of that nature. And we're putting more money into youth programs and services. But truly, to address this issue, we need a unified umbrella plan that ties in together all of these various different aspects of public safety – it brings the court systems into play, it brings them under the tent with each and every nonprofit across the city, all of the city departments, elected officials – but more importantly, our neighborhoods. I was one of the people that helped to create the neighborhood ownership model which neighborhoods across the city now use as their public-safety plan. We now can take this new plan and roll all that under there, and we would see a safer city.
Nasheed: We're seeing a reduction in crime as a result of what [St. Louis police] are doing. However, we need to make sure that we give them the tools that they need to continue on working with that particular [triangle] method. Right now, we need to begin to look at how [we] help the police when it comes to more funding for community policing and preventative patrols. How can we help when it comes to funding for mental health programs? We need to expand our mental-health courts in the city of St Louis, and we also need to look at the root cause of the problem, and that's poverty and education. So all of this goes hand in hand. We're going to have to expand workforce-training opportunities for young men and women who [are] looking to, you know, pick themselves up and get out there – and they're trying to work but they can't, because they have felony charges. And that's why I've been instrumental in expunging the criminal records for nonviolent offenders.
The elephant in the room right now is all this discussion about the [potential] city-county merger. What are your thoughts on that?
Green: I support a merger, [but] I do not support this merger. And I think that this proposal before us is more about privatization than it is about actually merging and solving a lot of the issues of our segregation and fragmentation across the region. If we look, for example, at Flint, Michigan, and how Flint became Flint, it started when their governor basically declared a financial state of emergency, took away control from local elected officials and put his political cronies in charge, who then privatized the water department, and they cut costs. If the city ends up going under the county charter, as is proposed under this, it would allow for the privatization of our public assets, and it would also negate a lot of our nondiscrimination protections that we have in place in the city right now. I think that the proposal before us is more designed to phase out our earnings tax and to gut our tax base in order to force privatization of these public assets than it really is to address the real problems that our region has with fragmentation.
Reed: One of the bigger issues with city-county merger, I believe, is the way the debt structure is set up, so that we would still house and own our own debt but then the revenue would go someplace else with the hopes that we will receive revenue back to the city to at least pay our base bills. That would cause the rating agencies to put us all on the watch list overnight. That would cost us more for money, and that would be a major issue for us here in the city. Can we gain by a merger? Absolutely. There are benefits to be gained and efficiencies to be gained. But we don't even have to wait for a merger to happen to do that. We could begin to put cooperative agreements together today for our public-safety services, so we combine some of those things – so our academies become one and we have unified training across all communities. We can do the same thing with our health department and all these other things. Those things could be done today.
Nasheed: We don't have to take this drastic approach in terms of totally shutting down a city government in order to merge it into a county government, [and] I think that the people should decide their own fate when it comes to the city and the county. Outstate shouldn't have any role [in] terms of if we want to merge the city and the county. This here will reduce black representation in a way that we have never seen before. We don't know what it’s going to do in terms of cost savings – we just got a report out today, I have to read it ... [but] what we need to begin to look at is, one, how would it help generate revenue for the city, how would it reduce crime, what would be the cost savings, and how would it impact minority representation? And right now it would impact minority representation in a major way. We have two [elected] offices in the City of St Louis, which is the mayor and a recorder of deeds [that are], held by non-African-Americans. The rest of them are all African-Americans. And if this happens, we will have little-to-no black representation.”
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex Heuer, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.
Send questions and comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.