OpinionPolitics

Jaco: To save St. Louis, Mayor Jones needs to do the math

St. Louis’ first Black woman mayor is a finance geek and public policy wonk. To save St. Louis when she takes office in two weeks, Mayor-elect Tishaura Jones will need those skills to focus on two numbers: 518,000,000 and 911.

$518,000,000 is the amount of federal cash the city will get from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Act. Handing over half a billion dollars to a cash-starved city such as St. Louis is like a rain storm in the desert; lots of things will sprout and grow, but they’ll all die once things return to normal. Jones’ job is to make sure things don’t return to normal, and the money doesn’t evaporate in a storm of graft, stupid projects (traffic-controlling concrete spheres, anyone?), and short-term fixes doled out based on political influence and unicorn promises (looking at you, Paul McKee).

911 is a metaphor for out-of-control violent crime, a short-handed and widely distrusted city police force, a broken 911 system with long wait times and not enough dispatchers, and thousands of St. Louisans being held hostage by sociopathic gunslingers who will shoot and kill children as casually as they’d order a drive-through cheeseburger.

The mayor-elect’s past indicates she should have a pretty good handle on all of that. She’s got a degree in finance. She’s overseen the city Treasurer’s office and its infrastructure that runs the city’s parking system. As a state Rep, she worked behind the scenes with the GOP in Jefferson City to pass a law equalizing penalties for crack and powdered cocaine, so that Black defendants up on crack charges wouldn’t face longer sentences than white defendants nabbed with a few grams of blow. She can do the math and can play the inside game.

Jones has been pretty clear about what programs she’ll move to the front of the line for the half-billion in new stimulus dollars. First, she proposes beefing up and streamlining the city’s often-chaotic mortgage, rent and utility assistance programs. Direct money for mortgages, rent and utilities moves to the top of the pile.

Next, Jones wants to expand the city’s small business grant program, helping small businesses hit by the pandemic pay utilities, salaries and rent, and make up for operation losses due to COVID. This shifts City Hall’s decades-long focus on large businesses and big corporate projects, toward the neighborhood businesses that both anchor communities and, on aggregate, provide the most city jobs.

Next, Jones proposes a series of emergency shelter centers for people who’ll lose their homes once the federal eviction moratorium expires. Besides setting up beds and basic barracks-like shelter housing, Jones would use the federal windfall to help the evicted find new homes; provide them with food and transportation vouchers; purchase cellphones for them; and provide health care, including mental evaluations, to both the newly and chronically homeless.

One of her most ambitious proposals is to provide some low-income St. Louisans with what she calls “targeted” basic income. A short-term idea that could be funded only through 2024, it would supplement unemployment benefits, child tax credits and previous stimulus checks with enough money to provide what would amount to a guaranteed basic income.

Beyond that, plans are muddy, mainly because Jones says she’ll hold public hearings with agencies and community residents and activists to figure out programs that can be funded. But possibilities range from creating free wi-fi in every city public space to forwarding money into the St. Louis Public Schools budget to moving cash to Bi-State Development to fund a northern MetroLink line and more buses to increasing the city budget used to tear down old buildings and offer the property as new home or business sites.

While sorting that out, Jones faces a more immediately important problem — dealing with the surge in violent crime and the loss of public confidence in a city police force that, on average, has paid out almost $1 million a year for the past 11 years in brutality and wrongful death claims, makes arrests in fewer than one-third of murders in high-crime areas, and is more than 100 officers short on the streets.

Jones has made it clear that she thinks the replacement for Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards should not be from the St. Louis area. She claims she wants a fresh set of eyes completely unconnected to the politics and personalities here. She’s also indicated she wants to have a come-to-Jesus with Chief John Hayden before she decides whether to keep him on as the city’s top cop.

Jones says she’ll focus simultaneously on two tactics as part of an overall strategy: focused deterrence, and community policing. But the devil’s in the details when it comes to both of those buzz phrases.

Focused deterrence simply means focusing police resources on the few hundred individuals and their associates most likely to commit violent crimes. Jones’ fellow progressives are suspicious, since it seems to them a targeted version of stop-and-frisk.

Jones replies that she’ll use the tactic in tandem with more community policing initiatives, such as sending social workers, not cops, to answer the roughly 50 percent of police calls her platform claims don’t call for an armed, uniformed police response. Her conservative critics, most notably on the Post-Dispatch Editorial Board, wonder how that will work in a town that has plenty of guns and child-killing sociopaths.

Tishaura Jones has made it pretty plain what she intends to do on both fighting violent crime and using big federal bucks to transform the city. Now we’ll see what happens when intentions meet St. Louis’s famously dysfunctional city government reality.  

Charles Jaco

Charles Jaco is a journalist and author. He has worked for NBC News, CNN, KMOX, KTRS, and Fox 2. He is best known for his coverage of the first Gulf War, and for his "legitimate rape" interview with Senate candidate Todd Akin. He is the winner of three George Foster Peabody Awards, and the author of four books.

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