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County Council approves money for more prosecutors — and demolishing Jamestown Mall

Wesley Bell, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney listens to County Executive Sam Page
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell, rear, listens to County Executive Sam Page on April 6 during the first-ever State of the County address at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center on the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus.

Updated at 3:15 p.m. April 27, with Page's plan to update the MET Center

Members of the St. Louis County Council on Tuesday approved transferring federal relief money to hire more prosecutors and tear down an abandoned mall.

The council agreed to allocate roughly $700,000 in American Rescue Plan funds this year to pay for 12 attorneys and seven support staffers. The total allocation is a little more than $900,000. Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell told councilmembers that his attorneys are overworked and need relief, even if it’s temporary, to help law enforcement officials fight crime.

“We all know again as St. Louis County has gone from a suburban county to more of an urban county, crime rates have gone up,” Bell said. “And this office has not had any kind of significant increase for positions other than raises or things of that nature in over 20 years. So again, this is about public safety. Our law enforcement partners need more money. They need more people on the streets. And they’re going to be bringing more cases in.”

Legislation allocating the money passed 5 to 1, with Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-St. Louis County, voting no. Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, was absent from the meeting.

Trakas questioned the wisdom of providing American Rescue Plan funds for governmental positions — especially when the funding may not be around in a couple of years.

“Just yesterday, a member of the Missouri legislature coined an interesting phrase,” Trakas said. “Basically what he said was that ‘the closest thing to never ending life on Earth is a government program.’ That’s what we’re talking about here. This is a million-dollar-plus increase to the county budget when it’s all said and done — whether it’s next year or the year after. I just can’t get there. I just don’t believe there’s any urgency now to pass it.”

Bell noted that it’s not unusual for his office to hire attorneys temporarily with grants and that the same principle will apply to people hired with American Rescue Plan money.

“We need bodies to clear these cases,” Bell said. “We need them for longer. But if we’re only going to get them for a shorter period of time if this body is so inclined, we’ll still be able to do some work in the meantime.”

The Jamestown Mall Dillards in December 2016.
Mike Kalasnik | Flickr
The Jamestown Mall Dillard's in December 2016.

Jamestown Mall demolition money approved

The council is also using about $6 million in American Rescue Plan funds to demolish Jamestown Mall, a shopping center in unincorporated north St. Louis County that’s been abandoned for years.

Efforts to redevelop the property have been a vexing problem across multiple county executive administrations. Councilwoman Shalonda Webb has been pushing to convert the property into a mixed-used development.

Right before the council unanimously approved the funding request, Webb noted that the mall was allowing people to paint north St. Louis County with a broad brush.

“In fact, in these very meetings, I heard a speaker say that north county was rotting. And my heart crumbled,” said Webb, D-St. Louis County. “Because that is my home. I raised my children here.”

Webb noted that many residents of unincorporated north county felt for years that county government, which is responsible for overseeing the area, hasn’t provided enough energy or money for noticeable improvements.

“I believe that people think that we’re less than — that we are your dumping ground,” Webb said. “We have areas that have challenges. We’re not blind to that. But we’re committed to work together to do holistic changes and to do robust solutions, not Band-Aids, to bring back our community.”

Like the legislation adding funding for more prosecutors, the measure providing money for Jamestown Mall demolition now goes to County Executive Sam Page for his signature.

Job training

Though the council is not expected to take much action on the remaining $83 million in ARPA until after the Missouri General Assembly wraps up its session in May, Page is pushing for an expansion of the county’s job training programs to be among the projects funded.

He was at the MET Center, in Wellston Wednesday, advocating for $5 million to be allocated to replace the plumbing and upgrade the heating and cooling systems. The building where the MET Center has operated since the 1990s was built in the early 20th century.

“Like a lot of old buildings, it needs some TLC to reach its full potential for today and the future,” Page said. “About two-thirds of the facility is currently leased, and there are some pressing capital needs that when addressed will allow more of the space to be used, including the unfinished 6th floor.”

Page also hopes to get $5 million in state funds to expand the programs offered at the MET Center. Key to those programs is the social services they include, said Carolyn Seward, the CEO of the Family and Workforce Centers of America, the nonprofit that helps run the MET Center.

“We are excited about the opportunity to integrate all of those social services, the mental health, the trauma-informed workshops, the legal services to get people ready to go to work,” Seward said.

Rachel Lippmann contributed reporting.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.