The Little City That Couldn't

Buried in bureaucratic incompetence and scandal, Pine Lawn might be headed for a pine box.

"It's an an act of retaliation, they're trying to silence me," O'Kain contends. "They know that I'm cooperating with the auditor's office, and they want me gone."


Like St. Louis County's other 90 municipalities, Pine Lawn relies heavily on county sales taxes to fund city government. But while wealthier suburbs substantially sweeten their own municipal pots with property taxes, Pine Lawn's increasingly run-down real estate contributes little to city coffers.

As the populace heads to the westward suburbs, Pine Lawn's infrastructure is crumbling. But that doesn't stop the city's politicians from fighting over the scraps.
Jennifer Silverberg
As the populace heads to the westward suburbs, Pine Lawn's infrastructure is crumbling. But that doesn't stop the city's politicians from fighting over the scraps.
Impeached alderman Johnny O'Kain fears for the life of his hometown.
Jennifer Silverberg
Impeached alderman Johnny O'Kain fears for the life of his hometown.

In terms of population, the city ranks near the middle of the 70 St. Louis County municipalities with populations under 10,000.

"A lot of the cities in that size category contract with county police," notes Tim Fischesser, executive director of the St. Louis County Municipal League. "You really need a population of at least 5,000 to field a full-time police department."

Fischesser adds that Pine Lawn's problems are symptomatic of the larger difficulties that confront cities of its size. "These are municipal corporations. They have hundreds of thousands of dollars but they have no professional employees to make sure that they produce at a certain capacity," he says. "It's a serious issue in the county. The cities that have professional employees generally do better than the cities that do not. They can't compete for grants, they don't have master plans and as all these challenges mount up, those small cities are going to fall apart at the seams."

Hiring professional employees — city administrators, chiefs of police, etc. — costs money. As Pine Lawn's top full-time bureaucrat, Karl Taylor was earning $22,880.

"That's not a professional salary. It should be twice that," Fischesser asserts. "They may have well-intentioned employees, but they're not going to know how to put together a long-range plan, and they're not going to know how to put together grants."

Mike Jones, executive assistant to St. Louis County Executive Charles Dooley, sees another problem: Pine Lawn and its municipal cousins are slowly withering. "St. Louis County can be seen as a tale of two cities: You have newer, western suburban areas that are showing a lot of growth and have a lot of financial strength. And then you have older inner-ring suburban cities," says Jones. "The housing stock could be in excellent condition, but by current market standards the kitchen's not big enough, or maybe there aren't enough closets. So when people think about purchasing a house, these days they'll think about a level of amenities that's not available in these older communities."

For now, Sylvester Caldwell enjoys a five-to-three majority on Pine Lawn's Board of Aldermen.

The mayor insists Pine Lawn is on the right track and that his detractors suffer from "sour grapes."

As proof he points to the demolition of a derelict auto shop. Rat-infested and home to vagrants, the abandoned building had been the subject of a two-year campaign on KTVI-TV (Channel 2) reporter Elliott Davis' "You Paid for It" news segment.

"It was an eyesore for twenty years, and Wright's administration fought me on bringing this building down," Caldwell says. "But we hired a building commissioner who had the know-how, and within one year we brought that building down. They said it couldn't be done. They tried to block it. They did nothing, so they want to block me and get me to do nothing."

Likewise, Caldwell asserts, any financial difficulties plaguing the city are a municipal hangover from Adrian Wright's twelve-year mayorship.

"I questioned Wright's spending when I was just an alderman," Caldwell says. "Before Adrian left office, he had a meeting with the employees telling them not to cooperate with me. They didn't want to sit down and have a transition with us. We're cleaning up, but we've only been here for a year."

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