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Draft St. Louis Budget Eliminates Funding For The Workhouse

The Medium Security Institution, also known as the Workhouse, in St. Louis.
File photo / Shahla Farzan
St. Louis Public Radio
Funding for the Medium Security Institution, also known as the Workhouse, is not part of the budget for fiscal 2022, although that could change.

Closing the St. Louis jail known as the Workhouse is a step closer to reality.

Next year’s proposed budget for the City of St. Louis includes no funding for the north St. Louis jail. The money is directed instead toward additional services for those leaving jail, and to boost the capacity of the current civilian oversight board to look into the jail. There is also funding to pay other counties to take individuals who may not be able to be safely housed at the Criminal Justice Center downtown.

The civilian oversight board was a top recommendation of a task force that studied two recent uprisings at the downtown jail.

“Since 2016, I have called for the closure of the Workhouse due to inhumane conditions,” Mayor Tishaura Jones said Wednesday. “I am proud to begin the process of divesting our city from our expensive arrest-and-incarcerate model, and pledge to shift time, energy and money towards a public safety strategy focused on addressing the root causes of violent crime.”

Budget Director Paul Payne presented the budget plan to Jones, Comptroller Darlene Green and Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed. Collectively, the three make up the Board of Estimate and Apportionment.

Activists who have been pushing to have the jail closed celebrated on social media.

“Organizing works,” Kayla Reed, the executive director of Action St. Louis, wrote on Facebook. “Three incredibly long years we have built out the Close the Workhouse campaign. We did it. The hellish jail is on its way to closure.”

“What a difference a day makes,” Alderwoman Megan Green of the 15th Ward wrote in reference to Jones’ second day on the job. “This is a huge win for organizing and a different vision for public safety in our city.”

In a statement, the Close the Workhouse campaign called the elimination of funding for the jail "only the first step towards achieving the St. Louis we all deserve."

"We will continue to push for a participatory budgeting process that allows our communities to re-envision public safety as support and well-being instead of policing and cages," the group said.

The lack of funding for the Workhouse is far from guaranteed to stick. While none of the other E&A members voiced opposition to the change, they will have an opportunity to make amendments to the budget soon. Aldermen will put their own stamp on the spending plan starting in May. And while nearly every current member of the board voted last July in support of closing the Workhouse, many expressed skepticism that it could be done safely.

Pandemic recovery

The budget unveiled Wednesday closes a $17.3 million gap using expected federal pandemic recovery funds. It’s a deficit driven by increases in expenses like pensions and the loss of revenue that still has not recovered from the impact of COVID-19 closures.

While revenue streams like the payroll and earnings taxes are doing better than expected, Payne said, other sources of income like sales and hotel taxes are not. Hotel taxes, for example, were predicted to drop about 60% during the current budget year but have actually fallen 74%

Not included in the new budget presented Wednesday are plans for the remainder of the $500 million the city expects to get in federal American Rescue Plan funding. But Payne reminded the board that the funds are only available through 2024.

“In looking for applications of the funds, we also want to focus on programs or expenditures that are also nonrecurring so that once the funds disappear, we don’t leave ourselves with ongoing commitments,” he said.

Jones will put together an ad hoc committee that will recommend how the money should be spent, although E&A and the Board of Aldermen will have the final say.

There will be a virtual public hearing at E&A on the proposed budget at 10 a.m. Friday.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.