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With eye toward reelection, Mayor Jones calls St. Louis ‘safer, stronger and healthier’

Mayor Tishaura Jones delivers her State of the City address on Wednesday, May 15, 2024, at The Sun Theater in St. Louis’ Grand Center neighborhood.
Theo R. Welling
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones used her State of the City speech on Tuesday to trumpet investments made during her three years in office.

Mayor Tishaura Jones says she has set the city of St. Louis on a course to be “safer, stronger and healthier” than it is today.

“Over the last three years, my administration has worked tirelessly to face challenges
head-on and begin the work of making changes that you can see and feel,” Jones said Tuesday night to a crowd of about 350 who listened to her State of the City speech at the Sun Theater in Grand Center. “But it would be irresponsible for me to stand before you today and claim total victory.”

Jones recapped the investments in a pilot guaranteed basic income program, street paving, traffic safety, small-business grants, building demolition and home renovation that the city was able to make with its $500 million allocation from the American Rescue Plan Act. That includes the acquisition of a building that will eventually house several city departments.

The city purchased the former headquarters of Killark Electric at Martin Luther King and Vandeventer in 2023. Once rehab work is completed, the site at 3940 Martin Luther King, to be known as the Monarch at MLK, will house a workforce development hub. It will also be the permanent home for the Land Reutilization Authority, the city’s workforce training agency, the Office of Violence Prevention and its Northside Economic Empowerment Center.

“The Monarch is a symbol of transformation, hope and rebirth, a symbol of the changes you can see and feel in north St. Louis, and it will help weave together St. Louis’ ancestral roots with inclusive opportunities for generations to come as we continue to become a global destination for industry and innovation,” Jones said.

Mayor Tishaura Jones speaks to State of the City address attendees on Wednesday, May 15, 2024, at The Sun Theater in St. Louis’ Grand Center neighborhood.
Theo R. Welling
St. Louis Public Radio
Mayor Tishaura Jones speaks to State of the City address attendees on Wednesday at The Sun Theater in St. Louis’ Grand Center neighborhood.

Success and struggles

In addition to the ARPA investments, Jones touted legislative achievements, including passage of a bill that makes it easier for restaurants to get liquor licenses. The Board of Aldermen also authorized the use of automated traffic enforcement cameras, which Jones says will help make city streets safer.

Journalist Rachel Lippmann discusses this story on the Politically Speaking Hour on St. Louis on Air

The city’s 911 response also is improving, with more than 80% of calls being answered within 10 seconds. That’s still below the national standard of 90% but better than the 50% within 10 seconds last year.

Jones highlighted last year’s drop in homicides, though 158 people were killed, as well as a 50% reduction in juvenile shootings.

“Our crime stats are down and moving in the right direction, but we have still more work to do so everyone can feel safe in their neighborhoods,” she said, adding that residents at a recent event had told her that “although they heard that crime was down in St. Louis, they couldn’t see it in their daily lives.”

Unlike in past years, Jones refrained from making any major funding commitments – a reflection of uncertainty about the city’s finances and a recognition that all ARPA funds are spoken for.

Officials are worried about the impact of pending litigation over whether the city can charge its 1% earnings tax to people who work remotely for St. Louis-based companies. The tax is the largest source of revenue for St. Louis’ general fund, and the city’s budget staff projects it will bring in about $12 million less than last year.

Jones froze hiring for all but essential positions on March 29, something she called a “difficult but necessary decision to financially protect the city.”

“But if Jefferson City doesn’t pass any laws decreasing our earnings tax by the time session ends, I’m happy to say that we will lift the hiring freeze on Monday, May 20,” she said to applause. The session ends Friday.

Jones had originally framed the freeze as being in part a response to changes that the Board of Aldermen made to the governance of the city’s firefighter pension systems. A spokesman for Jones said after the speech that while the city was still concerned about the cost of those changes, a $26 million contingency cut built into the budget made officials comfortable enough to reopen hiring.

That governance change also requires the authorization of state lawmakers, and bills are pending for that purpose at the Capitol. But when Jones began speaking around 7 p.m., Senate Democrats had been holding the floor for nearly 29 hours to stall unrelated legislation that would make it harder to amend the state constitution, with no signs of sitting down.

Reframing the narrative

Jones will launch her reelection bid later this week, and the success of any political campaign can depend more on how people feel they are doing than any measurable metric.

To that end, Jones challenged those in attendance Tuesday to change the way they talk and treat the city every day.

“What if we spoke life into St. Louis every day?” she said. “From now on I’m asking you, when you hear someone talking trash about St. Louis, tell them, ‘Every day we’re doing the work with a capital W to make our city safer, stronger and healthier for many years to come.’”

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