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Jones outlines plan for spending savings from closing Workhouse

CITY HALL – The easing financial woes brought by the COVID-19 pandemic and what to do with the city’s Medium Security Institution (the Workhouse) was on the minds of the city’s top financial officials Wednesday in their first meeting after the inauguration of Tishaura Jones as mayor.

Jones, in a news release, emphasized the need to close the workhouse, and she detailed ways to spend $7.8 million from shutting it down.

“Since 2016, I have called for the closure of the Workhouse due to inhumane conditions, including broken plumbing, inadequate medical care, moldy food and contaminated water; not to mention a toxic culture of abuse, retaliation and neglect among correctional staff,” Jones said in the release.  

Of the savings, Jones proposed using about $4 million to balance the city’s budget, about $2 million for medical services and meals for detainees, and about $1.8 million to help the mayor’s priorities for those in the justice system. 

“I am proud to begin the process of divesting our city from our expensive arrest-and-incarcerate model, and pledge to shift time, energy and money towards a public safety strategy focused on addressing the root causes of violent crime,” Jones said.

Jones made the announcement after her first meeting chairing the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, also called the Board of E&A. That body, which makes financial decisions for the city, is made up of the mayor, Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed and Comptroller Darlene Green.

In a report to the city’s top fiscal body on Wednesday, Budget Director Paul Payne said revenue for the general fund dropped from $529.6 million in the 2018-2019 fiscal year to $488 million in the 2020-2021 fiscal year, when COVID-19 devastated the economy the worst. 

His entire budget presentation can be read online.

Payne said revenue should increase to $511.5 million in the 2021-2022 fiscal year starting July 1, or 3.4 percent less than in 2018-2019. The general fund budget is primarily for general government purposes such as streets, parks, police and fire protection.

The total operating budget for all funds for 2021-2022 is projected at $1.153 billion, up 3.9 percent from this year. Beside the general fund, that also includes the airport, the city water division and other extra governmental purposes. 

The drop in revenue wasn’t as bad as expected, Payne said. For example, estimates were that withholding tax would be down by 15  percent in the 2020-2021 fiscal year. In fact, it’s down by 7.8 percent. 

One revenue source that took a nosedive was the hotel gross receipts tax, which was down 74 percent through the third quarter of fiscal year 2020-2021.

In general, the city has lost more than $120 million since the fiscal year 2018-2019, the last normal year before the pandemic, Payne said.

The city took one-time measures to cut back this year, but can’t do it next year, Payne said. Fortunately, it’ll get help from the recently passed COVID-19 relief legislation, the American Rescue Plan. 

The Board of E&A will hold a budget hearing open to public comment at 10  a.m. on Friday. Those who want to comment should send an email no later than noon Thursday to Stephanie Green at GreenSte@stlouis-mo.gov. They should include their name, address, email contact address and a brief description of their topic to the Board of E&A Secretary. People can also call 314-622-4245 and leave a message with the above information. 

After the E& A Board approves a budget, the Board of Aldermen also will consider it. That board can decrease budget items but not increase them. The Boards of Aldermen and E & A must approve a budget by July 1.

In action Wednesday, the board voted to spend $2.5 million for work needed to make the City Justice Center more secure after recent riots at the facility. 

The city is working on the first phase of fixing locks, doors and glazing on cells. The new money will provide for more work in those areas, as well as funds for an access control system, the computer system that controls locks and an intercom system. The total cost of the project is $13.5 million.

Jim Merkel

southsidemerkel@gmail.com Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit www.jimmerkelthewriter.com.

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