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St. Louis aldermen give preliminary OK to tax incentive reform, pedestrian safety

Board of Alderman President Megan Green presides over a meeting
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The St. Louis Board of Aldermen, shown on Jan. 20, gave initial approval Tuesday to several pieces of legislation that are key to the agenda of Mayor Tishaura Jones.

The 2022-23 session of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen is winding down, and major pieces of legislation remain unfinished.

The board held a special meeting on Tuesday to ensure that several priorities of President Megan Green and Mayor Tishaura Jones are approved before the break for campaign season, which begins Friday and ends in April.

Among them are changes to the development incentive process, prompted by a corruption scandal that brought down three former aldermen.

“This streamlines some of the incentive processes over at the St. Louis Development Corporation and creates transparency with some of the boards and commissions at SLDC,” said its lead sponsor, Alderman Shane Cohn of the 25th Ward.

Nothing in the bill likely would have stopped the three men — Lewis Reed, Jeffrey Boyd and John Collins-Muhammad — from taking bribes in exchange for legislation to approve incentives. But it does require the SLDC to gather more information about development projects and present it to the aldermen so they have a more complete picture.

Agencies under the SLDC’s purview will also have to livestream their meetings, Cohn said.

“Particularly boards where tax incentives are regularly debated before they are brought over to the Board of Aldermen, those will be more accessible,” he said.

The measure received first-round approval on Tuesday by a 24-2 vote, with two aldermen absent. One of the no votes came from Alderwoman Tina Pihl of the 17th Ward. She had attempted to introduce an amendment that would have strengthened language around community input on development projects. But aldermen narrowly voted to cut off debate before she could draft the wording.

Also on Tuesday, aldermen gave initial approval to a bill to allocate millions of COVID relief dollars toward street and pedestrian safety improvements.

The bill got quite a bit of attention on social media as amendment after amendment was approved in committee, some of which gutted the initial intent. But the measure on Tuesday received a unanimous vote.

It allocates a total of $74 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds, including:

  • $12 million to implement traffic calming measures already advised by traffic studies.
  • $3.5 million to improve safety at the top 10 crash locations in St. Louis.
  • $1.25 million for a mobility and transportation master plan.
  • $6 million for sidewalk improvements.
  • $2 million for a greenway in north St. Louis.

Alderwoman Sharon Tyus of the 1st Ward was a reluctant yes.
“I’ll be back here next year saying, ‘We don’t have enough people,’” she said. “I want the mayor’s office to hear that they need to hire some people to service all of this.”

Updates to civilian oversight

Aldermen on Tuesday also advanced a bill that attempts to resolve a lawsuit over the city’s Civilian Oversight Board for the St. Louis Police Department.

Lawmakers last year gave the oversight board the authority to investigate all internal police investigations that deal with misconduct or use of force. Thethree police unions sued, saying the changes conflicted with state laws governing police discipline and civilian oversight boards. A judge agreed and blocked the city from moving forward with those changes, although he allowed the portion setting up civilian oversight of the city’s jail to take effect.

The new measure attempts to address the specific concerns raised in the lawsuit, said Alderwoman Shameem Clark Hubbard of the 26th Ward.

“This is not against the police department,” she said. “Our communities and our citizens have fought for civilian oversight for over 20 years. This is about moving it forward the best way that we can do it and coming to a happy medium.”

16th Ward Alderman Tom Oldenburg remained opposed.

“These are the stumbling blocks that happen often when we don’t come to the table with the police department and the union members to fully work together,” he said.

Ward capital changes

The board on Tuesday defeated an effort to distribute funds for ward projects based on need, rather than equally among the wards.

Current legislation allocating sales taxes for capital needs distributes the money among 28 wards. With ward reduction taking effect in April, that language had to be adjusted.

A proposal backed by Green would have divided 70% of the money collected per year by 14. But the remaining 30% would have been distributed based on a variety of factors such as household income, the poverty rate and the size of the ward.

But by an 18-6 vote with two voting present, the board adopted an amendment from Oldenburg that eliminated the language related to needs. Among the yes votes was Anne Schweitzer of the 13th Ward, generally an ally of Green’s.

Had the 70/30 split been adopted, Schweitzer said, areas that she currently represents and hopes to represent after the election would get less money.

“There is not enough money in ward capital to fund the basic needs of the ward I represent now. My constituents are not in favor of taking away their funds,” she said.

Convention Center upgrades

A measure directing $30 million of the Rams relocation settlement to upgrades at the convention center received initial approval Tuesday with 24 yes votes.

That allocation is required by the deal, reached in November. It’s meant to help cover the rising costs of the upgrade and expansion of the center.

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