CITY HALL – Mayor Tishaura Jones relented Friday in her opposition to a $168 million COVID-19 spending package and voted to pass it out of the Board of Estimate and Apportionment.
But Jones still says $33 million in the bill for economic empowerment in north St. Louis main streets violates federal American Rescue Plan guidelines and could cause the federal government to demand the money back Nonetheless, she said during Friday’s estimate board meeting that it was important that the whole bill be passed so that other important COVID relief items in the bill can be distributed to city residents.
Jones, Comptroller Darlene Green and Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed all voted for the bill, which the Board of Aldermen preliminarily approved on July 13. It now goes back to the Board of Aldermen for final approval. Jones promised to sign the bill, in spite of her concerns about it.
During a meeting of the estimate board on July 16, neither Jones nor Green would offer a second to Reed’s motion to approve the bill. It has remained stalled since then.
“We’ve wasted enough time with President Reed,” the mayor said in a news conference after the estimate board meeting. “We have tried over and over and over again to work with him. And he refused to change one word. And the people of St. Louis can’t wait any longer.”
During that news conference, a reporter asked what could be done to ease challenges and squabbles such as this one.
“I think you should ask President Reed that. I have come into this office with a willingness to work with everyone,” Jones asserted.
Reed said the $33 million would provide money for needy businesses on the streets of north St. Louis. The American Rescue Plan provides broad latitude for municipalities to make up lost revenue. He said President Joe Biden had talked about the importance of going into areas that had been economically depressed.
“The recovery in those areas would be a much steeper recovery and a much longer recovery,” Reed said. It’s important to put those dollars to work to stabilize those areas, he emphasized, noting that the mayor of Detroit had done the exact same thing.
Reed said that an auditor had looked at the St. Louis documents and said those expenditures would be acceptable.
Jim Brown, an attorney for the city, said that the final rule guiding how the American Rescue Plan Act money was spent would probably say that the money couldn’t be used for general economic development.
“Recipients must demonstrate that the funding is for the economic impact of COVID-19, of the COVID-19 related emergency only,” Brown said, quoting a government document.
“If they did a callback in three years, where are you going to find that money?” Brown asked. “You’ll have to go do something else or take it out of general revenues.”
Reed brought lawyer Elkin Kistner to the Zoom meeting to talk about an opinion he had written saying that the $33 million for North Side economic empowerment was acceptable. But Kistner was not allowed to speak, because he doesn’t work for the city.