When the Levy Breaks

Two years and more than $4 million later, a downtown tax is drowning under charges that it was illegally imposed

Standing at the corner of Fifth and Olive streets, the young woman is snappily dressed in khaki shorts, a white shirt emblazoned with "Downtown Courtesy Corps," and a safari hat. She smiles expectantly at pedestrians as they walk right past her, almost none of them paying any attention. Nevertheless, she perseveres: smile, no response, a periodic look up to the sky, smile again. A half-hour later, with five more hours to go, she is still there, beads of sweat rolling down her face. Her smile is less perky as she drapes herself over a newspaper box.

"It is kind of boring," she says candidly. "Sometimes people don't even notice you. We're supposed to give people directions but hardly anybody ever asks." She smiles and shakes her head. "Sometimes I feel silly standing out here, but it pays $9 an hour so I'll keep doing it."

The dozen "distinctively uniformed sidewalk ambassadors" are just one of the many things funded by a Community Improvement Taxing District (CID), which in the two years since its inception has raked in more than $4 million to Downtown St. Louis Partnership Inc. The money also pays for a variety of other things: 114 sidewalk planters, 600 banners hanging on streetlights, extra police protection and equipment, graffiti removal, litter pickup, and special events such as Downtown on Ice and Thursday block parties in June at Union Station.

Some of the "distinctively uniformed sidewalk ambassadors" hired with funds from the downtown tax.
Jennifer Silverberg
Some of the "distinctively uniformed sidewalk ambassadors" hired with funds from the downtown tax.
J. Peter Dolan owns property at 400 Locust Street: "I see planters on the street. Unfortunately, the flowers are dying."
Jennifer Silverberg
J. Peter Dolan owns property at 400 Locust Street: "I see planters on the street. Unfortunately, the flowers are dying."

The CID was established under state law, which requires a majority of property owners in the district to sign a petition in favor of a "special assessment" on all property owners based on lot size and square footage of buildings. The Partnership managed to squeak out a majority by a narrow margin of four signatures. A month later, on July 23, 1999, the Board of Alderman approved the measure creating a downtown CID; on July 29, then-Mayor Clarence Harmon signed it into law.

But not all downtown business owners are satisfied with the CID or the benefits it has spawned. In fact, two groups of property owners have filed separate lawsuits, and lots of others have quietly backed them. One suit, filed against the city, charged that the "special assessment" is really a tax and that only a political subdivision, not a not-for-profit corporation like the Partnership, can levy a tax. In late June, a judge agreed that it was a tax and ordered the city to refund the money collected from the five plaintiffs -- plus interest.

The other lawsuit charges that the district was illegally formed and that the Downtown Partnership, in its zeal to set up the CID, didn't play by the rules. That suit is still pending in circuit court. An examination of the petitions, the manner in which the Partnership calculated property owners, and the selective inclusion of properties in defining the district boundaries raises questions about the validity of the petitions and the process that created a CID, which, over its five-year life, is likely to collect between $10 million-$15 million.

A lonely attendant watches over rows of tightly packed cars at the surface parking lot at 904 St. Charles St. It's not quite a major downtown property. And yet the lot's owner, Jack Pohrer, signed the CID petition three times. On paper, the lot is divided into three parcels -- one owned by the St. Louis Parking Company, of which Pohrer is president; another owned by the Myra Reyburn Trust, of which he is "owner/representative"; and the third was once owned by the nonprofit Little Sisters of the Poor. Trouble is, Pohrer signed for the parking company and the trust on Oct. 30, 1998 but signed as "lessee" of Little Sisters of the Poor in April 1999 -- even though he had bought the parcel from them eight months earlier.

Asked about this, Pohrer was reluctant to talk. Before hanging up, he said: "I am a representative, and it's the same as if I own it. I am not sure where you are going with this or what you're trying to do, but I am afraid you are into some real legal things you probably don't understand."

Little Sisters of the Poor didn't understand, either. In fact, the agency wasn't even aware its name was associated with being in favor of the CID. "We sold the property to [Pohrer] in September of 1998," says Bernie Huger, the lawyer for Little Sisters of the Poor. "We would have no reason to give him authorization to sign the petition since he was already the owner. I can't and won't even speculate how this happened."

Whereas Pohrer signed three times for the parking lot and four more times for other properties he owns or controls downtown, Ralston Purina, which owns 35 parcels south of downtown, was allotted only one signature. The difference, say critics, is Pohrer was a board member of the Downtown Partnership and a supporter of creating the CID, and Ralston was neither.

Beyond Pohrer's questionable signatures on the petitions, there are a few others:

Arthur and Paula Littleton, who jointly own two parcels at 1210 Washington Ave., signed twice.

Cupples Development and C&S Properties signed in favor of the CID, even though Cupples owned both parcels at 920 Spruce St. and C&S was simply leasing one from Cupples.

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