Voters in St. Louis will go to the polls next week to decide whether to give the city’s police officers and firefighters a raise by boosting the city’s sales tax by a half-cent.
Proposition P is the second sales tax on the ballot in six months. Approval would push the rate to nearly 12 percent in some parts of the city. And the current climate around policing in St. Louis is making the measure a tough sell.
Officers with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department have almost always made less than their counterparts with the St. Louis County Police Department. But in April, county voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase that was, in part, meant to raise police officer salaries. That widened the pay gap to about $10,000.
To keep pace, St. Louis aldermen put a similar increase on the November ballot. Most of the $20 million a year is intended to cover raises for the police department. The additional money wouldn’t totally close the gap, but would mean a $6,000 raise. There’s a corresponding boost in pay for St. Louis firefighters. And the circuit attorney’s office would get about $1.3 million a year.
A sales tax increase automatically boosts the tax that businesses pay on out-of-state purchases. That money — about $4 million a year — is earmarked for recreation and job training programs, building demolition, and mental health and other social services. All of the spending is contingent on aldermen approving the funds as part of the budget process.
“I think most people in St. Louis understand that the issue of public safety is a complicated issue,” said Mayor Lyda Krewson, who has thrown her support behind the proposition. “It’s not all about law enforcement, but certainly we need a competitively-paid police department.”
Proposition P supporters have spent more than $300,000 on advertising and mailers, and have $65,000 available to spend. The police and fire unions, as well as other labor groups back the measure.
Stockley verdict spurs opposition
But the near-daily protests demanding greater police accountability since the verdict in the Jason Stockley case on Sept. 15 have had an impact. A poll conducted by the Remington Research group at the end of September found 52 percent of those polled supported the increase, down from 60 percent in an earlier survey.
Opposition to the tax increase takes a number of forms.
“We have a lot of respect in our community for the police officers,” said Lucinda Frazier, the Democratic committeewoman for the Third Ward, which includes parts of seven north St. Louis neighborhoods, like College Park and JeffVanderLou. “But we’re giving money to the bad police officers too. It’s like we’re rewarding them for doing a good job.”
Others, like protest leader and state Rep. Bruce Franks, D-St. Louis, call out the regressive nature of a sales tax.
“It’s hard to believe that they would be asking poor people, and other people in the city, to vote for a raise on the backs of poor people when you’ve got a whole community of people that don’t feed connected, and don’t feel served, and don’t feel protected,” he said.
“We definitely don’t want to be known for raising taxes on those who can least afford it,” added city Treasurer Tishaura Jones, the most prominent citywide official to oppose the sales tax. “At times like these, when our people are in the streets demanding justice, asking us to increase taxes is tone-deaf.”
Opponents also believe there is enough money within the budget to fund the raises without a tax increase. A group calling itself Audit STL has started collecting signatures to have state Auditor Nicole Galloway review city spending. Twenty-four city departments were audited between 2008 and 2010 after a similar petition drive.
“Efficiency can play a role,” said JP Johnson, a strategist with the St. Louis Police Officers Association. “But no matter much reorganization you did within that budget, it still wouldn’t come anywhere close” to closing the pay gap.
The protesters have legitimate concerns, Johnson said.
“I think what they want to see is our public institutions respond to reforms that might make their lives better. And that’s a conversation we should have independent of whether someone gets a raise,” he said.
Proposition P has generated a split between activists and the Ethical Society of Police, which advocates for officers of color in the department.
“As the representative of 254, mostly overwhelmed, worn-down mostly minority officers with the Ethical Society of Police I’d never state we don’t deserve a pay raise. Our members do,” the society’s president, Heather Taylor, wrote in a Facebook post on Oct. 23. “I understand the anger with the lack of accountability internally, police brutality, racism, and the lack of transparency SLMPD has consistently shown ... That anger is warranted. There’s no debating that fact. Hell yeah, SLMPD needs accountability, but SLMPD needs to pay its officers better as well.”
John Chasnoff, a co-chair of the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression, said he felt for the good officers who would not get a raise if Proposition P fails.
“We simply can’t reward an institution that has disappointed us time and time again,” he said, “We hope they stay with the city and help to improve the department. And when we see that type of improvement, we could revisit a question of raised salaries.”
Krewson acknowledged that the aftermath of the Stockley verdict will make Proposition P a tougher sell in some parts of the city, but could boost its chances in others.
“Perhaps some people that might have just assumed oh, this is going to pass anyway, maybe they’ll take it a bit more seriously and make sure they get themselves to the polls to vote yes on Prop P,” she said.
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