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Parking generates headlines and headaches in city treasurer's contest

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 29, 2012 - The job of St. Louis treasurer, says candidate Tishaura Jones, is about more than being “a parking lot attendant.”

But from a financial standpoint, that could be a point of debate. Parking is certainly central to the city treasurer’s office -- and to the political battle now underway to fill the job.

As rival candidate Fred Wessels points out, about 95 percent of the money handled by the treasurer’s office comes from parking. The city treasurer oversees the operation of seven parking garages and the city’s hundreds of parking meters, which take in about $18 million a year.

For more than 20 years, Treasurer Larry Williams has used that cash to back bonds issued for an array of development projects, mostly downtown. That includes the parking garages, such as the one serving the Scotttrade Center.

The garages, he has maintained, help foster downtown redevelopment by providing the necessary parking.

Until 2009, the treasurer’s office also had dozens of employees in its parking division. But Williams then outsourced the management to a private firm, Duncan Solutions Inc., which currently is paid about $1.5 million a year to manage the garages. About 70 city employees in the parking division were laid off.

What to do with that contract, with the parking division – and with the treasurer’s office – are among the key issues in the crowded contest to succeed Williams, who is stepping down after holding the office since 1981.

Williams is retiring amid controversy over a federal investigation that turned up, among other things, “ ghost” employees on his department’s payroll who were paid although they didn’t show up for work.

Four Democrats are among seven candidates competing for the job, which has been part of city government for about 100 years.

Since St. Louis is overwhelmingly Democratic, the party’s victor in the Aug. 7 primary will be heavily favored in the November general election.

The four are, ballot order:

  • Alderman Fred Wessels, D-13th Ward, who also has filed suit challenging the contract as a violation of the city charter and ordinances. Wessels, a long-time health-care executive, has been critical of how the treasurer’s office has been run for more than a decade. He is calling for moving the parking division out of the treasurer’s office and eventually eliminating the treasurer’s office altogether.
  • Brian Wahby, chairman of the city Democratic Party and national committeeman to the Democratic National Committee. He also is a former 10-year employee in the treasurer’s office and, more recently, a consultant for the office. Wahby cites his master's in business administration and his years dealing with city development. He says city residents should consider overhauling city government, including the treasurer’s office.
  • State Rep. Tishaura Jones, daughter of former city Comptroller Virvus Jones. She emphasizes her degree in finance and her experience in investment banking. “The primary function of the treasurer's office should be to collect and manage the city's funds -- period,” she said when she announced months ago. She advocates shifting the parking division elsewhere in city government. That proposal, like her rivals' similar ideas, would require approval of the Missouri General Assembly.
  • Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, D-22nd Ward, who highlights his 23 years in the military and his nine years as an alderman. He calls himself “a change agent,” and says he’ll use the same approach to revamping the treasurer’s office and restoring ethical leadership that he has taken as an alderman. He points to $45 million in new development and capital improvements he has obtained for his struggling ward.

(Start of update) St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay has endorsed Wessels, while city Aldermanic President Lewis Reed backs Boyd. (End of update)

Also running in a separate primary are two Green Party candidates – Don Devivo and Anthony Stevens. The Democratic and Green Party nominees will face the unopposed Republican,Timothy Todd Bachmann, in the fall.

At a candidate forum last week hosted by the League of Women Voters, Devivo caused a stir when he announced he was endorsing Wahby. Devivo said in an interview later that he decided that Wahby’s political connections might make him the best fit for the office.

Wahby’s political ties also are a point of contention. Some past treasurers – notably, Paul Berra in the 1970s – were also major political players. Berra was city Democratic Party chairman for much of his tenure as treasurer. Wahby has pointed to Berra as he has resisted critics’ calls that he step down as city party chairman while seeking the post, or if he should get elected.

So far, the Democratic contenders say that another perennial city issue – race – hasn’t surfaced much in the contest. For about two decades, Williams was one of the most powerful African Americans in St. Louis government, a point of note in a city where political racial tensions have simmered – and occasionally boiled -- over questions of whether African Americans hold a fair share of offices in a city where the population is almost evenly split.

Wessels and Wahby are white, while Jones and Boyd are African-American.

Instead, Wahby and the other Democrats have dealt with another controversy -- parking tickets. Wahby had his auto registration suspended, unbeknownst to him, he says, because of four unpaid parking tickets from the 1990s.

The other three Democrats also have gotten tickets, and Boyd has had at least 18 tickets forgiven by the treasurer’s office, according to the Post-Dispatch. Boyd contended he was on city business at the time and therefore shouldn’t be subject to parking tickets.

Wahby, who has amassed the most tickets, says parking tickets are a fact of life for anyone who works downtown. He says the old unpaid tickets now have been paid.

Meanwhile, another point of debate among the Democrats has been over the city treasurer’s role in recent decades as a major force in redevelopment.

Jones, for example, contends that the city treasurer needs to step back from the pick-and-shovel role and focus more on the post's chief charter function of investing the city’s money for the highest rate of return.

Jones notes that the office now has committed much of its parking-generated income to repay revenue bonds issued for various developments or real estate purchases made by Williams.

Wessels says that, if elected, he plans to review the office’s holdings to see if  property can be sold, generating more money for the city’s coffers. “The treasurer’s office has been on a buying binge for 20 years,’’ he said.

Jones, by the way, contends that the state Hancock Amendment limits how much additional treasury department money could be shifted to the city’s general revenue. Wessels disagrees and emphasizes that the state constitutional amendment deals with revenue created by new taxes or fees, not additional revenue collected because the office has been revamped to spend less.

Boyd promises to bring in experts to look at the treasurer’s office to see ways it can be better managed, at less cost. Wahby says the point is to “maximize revenue to maximize returns.”

And, for the most part, that debate gets back to what should be the key role for the city treasurer. As it stands, like it or not, the candidates agree the job currently is mostly about parking.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.