CoronavirusNewsPoliticsThe NorthSider

$168 million for COVID-19 relief stalls over wording

CITY HALL – Two key city officials failed to reach agreement Friday on changes that would have allowed distribution of $168 million in federal COVID-19 recovery aid.

The impasse between Mayor Tishaura Jones and Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed apparently means efforts to pass an enabling bill to spend the money are stalled. Jones said the language in part of the bill didn’t comply with federal guidelines; but Reed said it was legal, and he wouldn’t budge.

Following nearly an hour of sharp debate at the powerful Board of Estimate and Apportionment on Friday, Reed moved that the board approve a bill that the Board of Aldermen preliminarily passed on Tuesday. That motion died for lack of a second, and Jones adjourned the meeting.

Jones, Reed and Comptroller Darlene Green make up the estimate board, which must approve all appropriations bills from the Board of Aldermen. 

The bill was set for a vote on final passage at an aldermanic meeting after the estimate board. But Reed pulled it and put it on the Board of Aldermen’s informal calendar, where it will stay until he brings it back. 

Complicating matters is the fact that Friday’s Board of Aldermen meeting was the last before the summer break. The next meeting is scheduled for September. A special meeting would have to be scheduled in order for aldermen to gather before then.

In a memo, interim City Counselor Matt Moak identified $53 million in spending in the bill that may not meet the requirements of the American Rescue Plan Act. It includes money for developing parts of Natural Bridge Avenue, North Grand Boulevard, West Florissant Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.  

“We’re not saying that we’re not going to spend money in north St. Louis,” Jones said. But she emphasized that all of the federal COVID-19 funds had to be spent to undo the negative economic impacts of the pandemic.

Jones offered an amendment that she said would correct the problem.

“We’re just asking you to change just a few words to be able to do the same thing,” she said.

But Reed said an amendment would delay the process. 

“Are you saying that the board bill being structured the way it is right now will prevent the city from putting a program together that complies with federal guidelines?” Reed asked Moak.

“No, I’m not saying that,” Moak said. But he said it didn’t appear that the projects met American Rescue Plan Act guidelines.  

“Comptroller Green and I agreed that as fiscal stewards of our city, we cannot approve legislation that goes against U.S. Treasury rules and could force St. Louis to pay back millions of dollars of funds,” Jones said in a statement issued after the meeting.

But in a statement issued after the meeting, Reed said the estimate board had failed the people of the city of St. Louis.

“There is nothing in the bill that is illegal,” Reed said in the statement. “There is nothing stopping the administration from implementing the programs in compliance with federal guidelines. There is nothing in the bill authorizing anyone to spend funds illegally or against the guidance.”

Green meanwhile, issued a statement backing the mayor.

“Reed’s unwillingness to address his bill’s fundamental flaws — despite multiple attempts to work with him—has now stalled the relief our residents and businesses so desperately need,” Green said. “Instead of making positive strides towards working together, Reed’s actions not only churned division among elected leaders, but lacked real leadership and could ruin a golden opportunity for relief for the people of St. Louis. “

At the end of the Board of Aldermen meeting, 22nd Ward Alderman Jeffrey Boyd lashed out at the estimate board for failing to act. 

“I think it’s a sad day in the city of St. Louis that we could not accomplish the task and pass out Board Bill 2 Committee Sub as amended,” Boyd said. 

“It’s really unfortunate that it appeared that a sticking point in the bill came down to Black folks,” he said. “It came down to disagreements over the fact that Black corridors, commercial corridors, should be in the bill the way it was in the bill.

“It’s really sad that power struggles of personalities pretty much prevailed.”

The package includes money for vaccination, youth jobs, mortgage assistance, direct cash benefits and other programs. The $168 million is part of about $500 million the city is getting from the American Rescue Plan Act.

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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