(TNS) — Vacant property, a new police chief and bids to privatize the city’s airport are some of the next items on St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson’s to-do list.
Describing the period since her April inauguration as a “whirlwind,” Krewson has spent much of her early months in office responding to crises or controversies. Among them was an effort to remove a Confederate monument in Forest Park that led a local museum to sue the city in June, with the two parties eventually reaching a settlement to ensure the structure’s dismantling.
After a fire at the historic Clemens House — a building owned by Paul McKee’s redevelopment organization, NorthSide Regeneration — sparked concerns in nearby neighborhoods of asbestos exposure, Krewson and state officials enlisted the EPA to test the air and the windblown debris from the blaze.
A recent heat wave reinvigorated protesters to call for the closure of the city’s medium security jail, which was operating without air conditioning and houses more than 700 inmates, most of whom are awaiting trial. The city opted to lease temporary air conditioning units, something Krewson said was possible this year because of electrical upgrades. But questions about other allegations of abuse and abhorrent conditions within the St. Louis Medium Security Institution have been left largely unanswered.
And an announcement from St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger that a voter-approved half-cent sales tax would be used to raise police salaries by up to 30 percent has led Krewson to push for a similar proposal in the city, which voters will decide on in a special election in November. Should it pass, St. Louis’ sales tax rate will jump to at least 9.7 percent, one of the highest in the country.
“There’s been a lot of hustle,” Krewson said of her first 100 days, in a recent meeting with the Post-Dispatch’s editorial board. “I think that’s a good word to use.”
There has been progress, too, she says, citing a push toward community policing and other crime-prevention initiatives. Garbage pickup soon will improve, she said, after the passage of a proposal to raise trash fees from $11 to $14 to pay for new trash trucks. Other achievements she lists include successful negotiations to put Highway Patrol officers on city freeways and meetings to hear public comment on proposed tax incentive reforms and a new leader for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.
Public safety remains the top priority “every single day,” Krewson said.
She will need support from both the public and the city police officers’ union to get voter approval for a half-cent sales tax increase to hire more St. Louis Metropolitan police officers and pay them more money. The union’s executive board has expressed reservations with the proposal she has backed, calling for all of the revenue generated to be allocated to police pay, rather than divided up among other initiatives, such as recreation programs.
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“Do they really want to oppose $10,000 more (in salary and benefits) on average per officer? I would hope not. My belief is, cooler heads will prevail,” Krewson said.
But the St. Louis Police Officers Association maintains that there's no guarantee that any of the $13 million dedicated to the police department in the proposal would be used for raises. An amendment to earmark that money solely for salary increases was defeated in the Board of Aldermen in July, with Krewson lobbying against it.
As for a new police chief, Krewson expects the city to hire a search firm to assist in the recruitment of candidates in August.
“I think a fresh view is good for a lot of reasons. However, I think we have to make that decision based on who is before us at the time,” she said.
Krewson also said she’s convened meetings with judges, the circuit attorney’s office and corrections officials to explore ways to reduce the population at the Medium Security Institution, known more informally throughout the city as the “workhouse.”
The parties are discussing bail policies and whether there is any flexibility in holding more than 100 inmates who are in the jail for technical probation violations.
Krewson has pushed back on persistent accusations that conditions at the workhouse are unsanitary or deplorable, but she told the editorial board that moving people more quickly through the criminal justice system will be a priority.
Other priorities in the next 100 days include a vacant property initiative Krewson hopes to launch in the next two to three months. An idea she floated in the editorial board interview would involve the Land Reutilization Authority selling vacant properties inexpensively to individuals or small developers, who would have two years to rehab the structures and get them occupied, in exchange for a 10-year property tax abatement, as well as new sidewalks or street trees.
Otis Williams, who heads the city’s economic development office, said there’s been no direction to do that yet, but that it could be an idea to discuss in upcoming meetings.
“We’re not getting any money on them now,” Krewson said. “The idea would be that there would be five houses on a block that we get somebody to do, so we don’t get one here, one there.”
The city intends to hire a financial adviser and seek proposals from entities who want to lease and operate St. Louis Lambert International Airport, the mayor said, adding that potential bidders already have emerged.
Privatization is an idea Krewson says is worthy of consideration, but it was spearheaded by her predecessor, Francis Slay. The city’s successful application to enter the Federal Aviation Administration’s privatization program was paid for by Grow Missouri Inc., backed by St. Louis financier Rex Sinquefield.
“The goal is, can we have a better airport? Can we have more flights? Can we have better service? Can the city get a good stream of money ... are we satisfied with the bidder, that they can perform whatever all their promises would be?
“If we can do that, then we’ll move forward with it. If we can’t, then we won’t,” Krewson said.
Krewson has also publicly supported the idea of more coordination between city and county governments, particularly in the areas of law enforcement and economic development but said future plans depend on the outcome of a cooperation study she and Stenger have asked a small committee to conduct.
The Missouri Legislature might not wait that long. In May, Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard said he wanted the state to consider proposals to privatize the city’s airport and consolidate St. Louis municipalities during its 2018 legislative session.
Gov. Eric Greitens called the Legislature into a special session this summer in part to combat a St. Louis ordinance banning discrimination in employment and housing based on “reproductive health decisions.” The Legislature passed the bill into law, although many in St. Louis don’t believe it will have much practical effect.
Krewson maintains that despite the state’s tendency to “bigfoot” Missouri’s urban areas, she remains open to working with state officials as well as Stenger going forward.
“There’s not anything to be gained by not getting along with them,” she said.
And while the Legislature may have preempted a citywide minimum wage increase, Krewson said she still counts its implementation as an early victory, since some businesses will still keep the new $10 wage, which can be reverted this month.
“It’s not the benefit that I would like for it to be, it’s not as much, but it was still worth it to go ahead and implement this in the city and give working folks a better wage,” she said.
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