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Mayor Jones sees guidance from ARPA survey — and opportunity for change

062222_BrianMunoz_TishauraJones.jpg  St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones visited St. Louis on the Air on June 22, 2022.
Evie Hemphill
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones will discuss ARPA survey results on Wednesday's "St. Louis on the Air."

As the City of St. Louis deals with an unprecedented windfall in federal COVID-19 relief funds, Mayor Tishaura Jones has a new tool to help gauge local priorities: a survey of a broad group of residents and other stakeholders.

The city’s “ARPA Needs Survey” drew 4,215 responses, more than 77% of them from city residents. Respondents were asked to indicate their top three priorities and then drill down on how they would spend the money in each of seven broad categories.

And with $249 million still in need of appropriation, Jones said she would be heeding the survey results.

Listen to St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones on St. Louis on the Air

“We intend to give it a good amount of weight,” she said on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “This is something where we've always wanted to get community input. We have to meet people where they are — and we want them to tell us how their government can work for them, not the other way around.”

Jones acknowledged the survey respondents were more likely to be white (67% self-identified as such) and female (58%) than the city as a whole. But Jones said she feels confident she’s not getting a skewed perspective. “We also did town halls and round tables,” she noted. The town halls alone drew more than 200 people.

Top areas of focus chosen by respondents: neighborhood transformation (chosen by 20%), infrastructure improvements to make the city safer (19%) and children and youth (15%). Those areas beat out public health, household assistance, government services and economic empowerment.

Top ways to achieve neighborhood transformation, per the respondents? Expanding resources for vacant building and lot stabilization, “through rehabilitation when possible and demolition when necessary” (21%), providing “funds to address potholes, install LED lighting and implement traffic calming, surfacing and other street improvements” (21%) and funding construction and rehab for housing, including more tiny homes (18%).

The city previously earmarked $70 million for infrastructure improvements, but Jones said more are now coming. Last year’s federal infrastructure bill will support those efforts too.

The top choices for infrastructure improvements to make the city safer include fixing the 911 system (24%), fixing the sewer system (24%) and investing in parks and recreational centers (21%).

The top choices for investing in children and youth include offering programming to connect youth with jobs and apprenticeships (25%), increasing educational opportunities for kids 5 and younger (22%) and creating safe educational programs to decrease youth violence (22%).

As for public health, only 13% of respondents thought it should be a top priority. And only 8% wanted to see COVID-19 contact tracing and mitigation efforts receive funding. But Jones said she wasn’t listening to that.

“We're going to be hiring more epidemiologists and nurses to make sure that not only are we still tracking COVID, but other infectious diseases as well,” she promised.

Jones also discussed the need to put good controls on the money. Three aldermen, including Board President Lewis Reed, recently resigned after being indicted on bribery charges.

Reed had previously pushed for aldermanic control of federal COVID relief funds. Businesses applying for the city’s $37 million North St. Louis Commercial Corridor Grant Program, for example, needed their individual alderman’s support on staff letterhead.

In her first one-on-one interview since the indictments became public, Jones said the U.S. Treasury Department had flagged that provision as ripe for abuse — and the indictments brought home the potential for “aldermanic courtesy” to be linked to bribes. She said she’d like not only to revisit that provision but to work with the Board of Aldermen on incentive reform for developers.

“No longer can we have a process where the alderperson has the ultimate veto authority,” she said. “It has to be something that's done with community, not to community.”

Jones said she had met with interim Board President Joe Vollmer. She didn’t think an incentive reform bill would be possible before the board adjourns in July, but she’s hopeful to build momentum to tackle it after that.

Fixing the system, she said, will be essential to drawing more good development to the city.

“This is an opportunity for us to level the playing field so your smaller developers get as much attention to their projects as your larger developers,” she said. “And we know that that hasn't always been the case. We want to make sure that we’re creating an environment where everyone feels that their project has a chance.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.