Jones calls on St. Louis residents to come together to improve the city
St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones challenged city residents to “meet me upstream” as she outlined her agenda for the third year of her term in her State of the City address on Tuesday night.
“‘We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now,’” Jones said, quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from a speech he delivered 58 years prior, in the same room at St. Louis University where she spoke. “Let’s steer that boat upstream to stem the tide.”
It was a call to focus on the factors that drive crime, especially poverty.
“First responders are responding to crime downstream, after it happens, or in progress,” she said. “But what are we doing upstream? What investments are we making in preventing crime from happening?”
She asked those in attendance for help with apprenticeships, internships or workforce development programs.
“We can wrap our arms around our communities and provide opportunities for everyone to thrive,” she said.
Unlike last year, Jones did not commit large sums of money to specific programs to tackle those root causes. The city has already appropriated its $500 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, though it has spent just $62.3 million. The city still must decide how to spend about $250 million from the Rams lawsuit settlement.
But she highlighted programs already in place, such as the new Office of Violence Prevention, which is fully funded in next year’s budget, and partnerships with St. Louis Public Schools to set up summer camps. More sites will open this summer, she said.
The city has also invested millions in consolidation of its three separate dispatch systems for police, fire and EMS. Police and EMS dispatchers are already working in the same building downtown, but it’s not clear if the changes have decreased 911 wait times.
Jones also wants to revive the city’s red light camera program to help with traffic enforcement. The state Supreme Court in 2015 struck down the ordinance authorizing the cameras because it assumed the owner of the car was the one driving the vehicle.
And the proposed budget on its way to the Board of Aldermen includes $500,000 in additional funding for the Department of Public Safety to crack down on expired license plates.
State control of police a ‘hot mess’
The programs, along with the leadership of new Chief Robert Tracy, are having the desired impact, Jones said. Violent crime is down, as are property crimes aside from auto theft, which has recently been driven mostly by Kia and Hyundai vehicles especially vulnerable to thieves.
But, Jones warned, all of the progress could be reversed if Republicans in Jefferson City succeed in their efforts to return the St. Louis police department to state control.
“State control of police was a hot mess in the 1800s, when it was implemented by a Confederate governor. It was a hot mess when Jefferson City-approved bureaucrats on the police board called in favors for friends and family. It’s a hot mess today in Kansas City, which just experienced its most violent years on record despite the state still controlling KC’s police force,” she said.
Tracy has pledged to stay on under a state-appointed board if asked. One version of a state control bill has passed the House and awaits action in the state Senate. The other version has yet to have a vote in the full Senate.
Jones made her distaste for other legislation pending in Jefferson City crystal clear.
“Folks, what’s going on in Jefferson City right now is definitely not the work of the people,” she said. “What’s a bigger threat to our children — weapons of war on our streets, or history teachers, hardworking librarians and drag queens? Here, in St. Louis, we reject these attempts to divide us, because we know our differences make us a better, stronger city.”
Modernizing city services
Jones said her focus on changing old systems is not limited to public safety. She announced plans to better measure city services through a new effort called LouStat but didn’t provide details. She touted her efforts to bring on additional mechanics to fix broken trash trucks and to improve trash collection, and she highlighted the switchover to a new payroll system that no longer involves floppy disks or typewriters.
“Change is hard, but we’re making progress in bringing city government out of the dark ages and into the 21st century, which is essential to improve our services and hiring,” she said.
And she pledged to work with Board of Aldermen President Megan Green to modernize the city’s liquor laws, which force restaurants that want to serve alcohol to gather signatures from nearby residents.
Jones went through the process when she, her father and her father’s best friend opened a restaurant called Sugar’s on the edge of the Central West End.
“We were only open for a year,” Jones said. “I thought that politics was a cutthroat business, but let me tell you running a small business is a whole other beast, especially with the speed humps and barriers St. Louis threw in our way.”
Until a legislative fix passes, Jones said, she is bringing more staff into the excise division and asking other departments for help verifying signatures.
Working with the board
Jones and Green are aligned on issues beyond the need to make it easier for restaurants to get alcohol licenses.
“Violent crime is on our minds more than ever,” Green said during her inauguration to a full term as board president on April 18. “Our fear, outrage and resignation are justifiable. As your elected officials we owe it to you to find a way through this. But we need a new approach. The current model of arrest and incarcerate isn't working.”
The two also want to push for additional support for child care and are pledging to find ways to reduce the population of people dealing with homelessness.
“We are gathering data to drive a true regional approach, which will include permanent housing and wraparound services for our unhoused,” Jones said. “I also hear those who say, despite all these steps, the city can and must do better.”
Jones’ office has faced harsh criticism for the decision to twice break up an encampment near Laclede’s Landing. And her administration struggled to get a 24/7 winter shelter open, despite having federal dollars in hand.
With the mayor, the board president and Comptroller Darlene Green generally on the same page, and a stronger progressive bloc on the Board of Aldermen, Jones’ legislative agenda has fewer impediments than in the past. But not everyone is fully in agreement
“I certainly think we should fund an anti-poverty agenda, but I don’t think we do it at the expense of resources for the police department,” said 2nd Ward Alderman Tom Oldenburg, the mayor’s ideological opposite on many issues. “We have the opportunity to do both.”
But Oldenburg said he saw room for compromise in some areas like early childhood development and day care.
“Those are real issues that are near and dear to my heart, and I think they help a lot of real citizens across the city,” he said.
Just more than half of the recently sworn-in aldermen attended Jones’ speech.