Jaco: St. Louis is drowning while the lifeguards argue

You’re drowning. As you thrash in the water, you see a huge life preserver on the bank attached to a stout rope, with a sign reading, “Use in case someone’s drowning.”

Two lifeguards stand on opposite sides of the life preserver. One says, “I’ll toss the life preserver.”

The other replies, “The hell you will. I’ll toss it.”

The first says, “You can’t toss it. The rules say you can only toss it with your right hand, and you’re left-handed.”

The second says, “My lawyer says, in an emergency you can use either hand.”

“Then we won’t toss it at all,” the first says.

“Call the lawyers,” the second says.

“Glug,” you say.

That’s pretty much where St. Louis is right now. One hundred sixty-eight million dollars in federal pandemic aid for the city, part of an eventual $517 million aid package for St. Louis city, is sitting unspent. That’s because of policy disagreements between Mayor Tishaura Jones and Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed, and because the two can’t stand each other.

St. Louis voters have approved cutting the Board of Aldermen from 28 members down to 14, figuring more would get done, because 14 people would argue less than 28 people. The COVID aid fiasco, though, shows it only takes two people to gum up the works.

In a city gutted by half a century of population loss, disinvestment, violence, institutional racism, government dysfunction and infrastructure collapse, half a trillion dollars could be transformative. Instead, the first $168 million is on hold because of the same City Hall idiocy that helped lead to St. Louis’s decline in the first place.

Taking a deep dive through the political sewage holding up badly needed aid for the city provides a look at not only what’s delaying the money, but at political culture in St. Louis that’s elevated personal feuds over policy for decades.

There are two different plans on how to spend the first federal installment of $168 million. One is supported by Jones and Comptroller Darlene Green, the other backed by Reed. And what’s breathtaking about this disagreement delay is that the Reed version and the Jones version are about 95 percent the same. 

The entire hold-up centers on a proposal by Reed to spend $33 million on four North Side street corridors where urban devastation and economic and social collapse have hollowed out miles of Martin Luther King Boulevard, North Grand Boulevard, West Florissant Avenue and Natural Bridge Road. Reed’s plan passed the Board of Aldermen by a 27 to 1 vote.

Jones’ office objected, saying that Reed’s plan violates the federal rules for spending money from the American Rescue Plan Act, specifically Section 2.8 of Treasury Department guidance, which reads: “Recipients must demonstrate that funding uses directly address a negative economic impact of the COVID-19 public health emergency.” The mayor produced an opinion from interim City Counselor Matt Moak that the Reed proposal passed by the aldermen probably didn’t comply with that rule.

Reed fired back with opinions from counsel for the Board of Estimate and Apportionment (more on them later) Elkin Kistner; and accountant Ted Williamson whose firm, Rubin-Brown, had been hired to keep track of the funds. Both said that Moak was wrong and that the funding proposals met federal standards.

Reed’s office then fired back, saying Jones and Green okayed $8 million worth of federal COVID spending at the June 30 Estimate and Apportionment (E&A) meeting without knowing whether it violated Section 2.8, including $2.5 million for a youth jobs program and $1 million to help people catch up on back child support payments.

This gets messy because of the Board of E&A. It’s made up of the mayor, comptroller and aldermanic president. This civic oddity has to sign off on any spending above $5,000, meaning another layer of bureaucracy — and confusion — is added to any significant spending.

Jones says Reed refuses to meet with her to negotiate. Reed says he met with Jones July 12 and won’t meet again unless it’s in the form of an official E&A meeting with him, the mayor and Comptroller Green. The Board of E&A can’t override the Board of Aldermen. The aldermen can’t override E&A. So the money sits.

Reed’s $33 million proposal to spend on those four North Side street corridors isn’t the only hang-up in spending the badly needed federal cash. Reed wants $5 million for police overtime; the mayor doesn’t. The mayor wants $5 million for one-time $500 payments to 10,000 low-income St. Louisans; Reed doesn’t, because he and aldermanic allies say they “aren’t sure” where the “cash giveaways” would go.

But besides those three items — Reed’s $33 million for four street corridors, Reed’s $5 million for police overtime and Jones’ $5 million for the $500 direct payments — the dueling bills about getting millions in desperately needed aid out the door are essentially identical twins.

Cities from Seattle and Albuquerque to Boston and Austin already have plans in place, and spending has started. But St. Louis is mired in partisan and personal disagreements. Partisan, in this case, because Democrat Jones is further left than Democrat Reed. Personal, because Jones and Reed ran against each other in the Democratic primary, in which Reed finished third. To say they didn’t like each other to begin with is an understatement.

How about Jones going along with appropriating the $33 million Reed wants for the four street corridors? If it doesn’t pass muster with the feds, they’ll tell the city before the money’s actually spent. If legal, fine. If not, move it elsewhere.

Or how about Reed signing off on Jones’ plan for the $500 direct payments? The mayor says they’ll go to 10,000 people with low incomes. You can bet those people would inject that money right back into the local economy, spending it almost immediately.

If these two can’t work it out, get their staffs together. Maybe they could act like grown-ups. In a city with desperate needs such as St. Louis, holding the first installment of tens of million in federal pandemic aid hostage to disagreements over less than five percent of the total money isn’t just unnecessary. It’s criminal.                               

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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