Gimme, Gimme

Badges and fire hoses trump affordable housing and health care for the poor

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When $20 million pops up in the desert that is the city budget, it's not surprising that housing advocates and the mayor's staff fight over it like Bedouins battling over a water hole at the oasis.

Or maybe it's more like someone trying to cash in a winning lottery ticket when a so-called friend shows up at the last minute to claim he chipped in for the ticket and wants a chunk of the winnings.

Whatever you compare this mess to, what is going on between Mayor Francis Slay and the housing advocates who were instrumental in passing the use-tax proposal in 2001 is just plain ugly -- and it's going to get a lot uglier.

Proposition H passed primarily because of years of work by housing advocates who wanted to create a dedicated source of revenue for an affordable housing trust fund that would be controlled by an independent commission. Similar efforts to reinstate the use tax, which puts a 2.6-cent tax on city companies that make out-of-state purchases of more than $2,000, had failed.

To cobble together a winning coalition, the housing folks cut health-care advocates in on the deal, agreeing to split the revenue 50-50 so that the city could fund ConnectCare, the voucher system created after the closure of Regional Hospital, the last public hospital in the area.

Estimates varied widely on what the tax would bring in, but the figure most publicized was about $5 million. Well, before anyone could yell, "Bingo!" the tax was bringing in about $20 million a year. Now everybody wants a taste.

Slay asked the housing commission for $5.6 million to fund existing city programs, some associated with affordable housing in only the loosest sense. To its credit, the commission saw the shell game Slay was playing, luring new money in to pay for old programs and thereby freeing up cash previously dedicated to those purposes and putting it somewhere else. So the commission said no to the mayor and signed off on only $2.2 million of his requests.

That didn't make the boys in Room 200 happy.

The commission then found out about term limits and the mayor's appointment powers over them. Terms for three members of the housing commission expired June 30. Slay will replace them with people of his own choosing, and you can bet they won't balk at his requests.

Janet Becker, a housing advocate who has been fighting the good fight or a long time, sees where this is headed but also puts Slay's actions in perspective.

"Next year, he'll pick off the next three who are finished and not reappoint them," says Becker. "Then he'll have six out of eleven, and then what can anybody do, as long as he's there? But that's not forever. That's how I have to look at it. We have a rough time to go through. If we're lucky, we'll have two years' worth of what we're entitled to in our ordinance with the use tax. I don't think he can touch it until a year from now, so right there it's $20 million."

By "touch it," Becker means "take the money and run to the nearest hole in the budget levee." But Slay isn't satisfied with this waiting game -- he's pushing an ordinance through the Board of Alderman that would hijack the funds from the use tax for the mother of all good causes: public safety.

Let's briefly give Slay points for this politically deft approach. By resorting to the atom bomb in the arsenal of reasons people vote for tax increases -- more for police and firefighters -- he has shown both how desperate he is and what he's prepared to do.

If Slay's ordinance makes it through the Board of Aldermen before that august body adjourns for August, the referendum to redirect the money away from affordable housing and health care makes it onto the November ballot. If it passes, it won't go into effect until July 2003.

Slay is also riding on the side of popular sentiment and patriotism. Since September 11, what more popular cause is there than police and firefighters? To sweeten the deal, the mayor has added funding for demolitions to the list. In a city where more people have left than have stayed, the need to demolish more of the city's thousands of vacant buildings gives the proposition a boost at the polls.

The problem for Slay is that housing advocates showed what they could do when Proposition H passed with 58 percent of the vote. Slay even had the good sense to jump on the bandwagon before that vote and kick in a contribution. These people know how to organize and get like-minded people to the polls.

Laura Barrett, a housing advocate who helped run that campaign, never strays far from the barricades. If Slay pushes his proposal without guaranteeing sufficient funds for the affordable-housing commission, he can expect opposition from those who passed Proposition H.

"There's a lot of people who are going to be very angry about this, and rightfully so," says Barrett. "It's not often that you have a mayor going out and taking away something from people that they worked hard with him in concert to get. He's ignoring the will of the voters; he's disrespecting the advocates, the unions and churches who worked so hard to get this passed."

A meeting last week between members of the Affordable Housing Commission and the mayor's staff did not appear to make any progress. There seemed to be a lot of shadowboxing about how much money Slay would have to guarantee the commission from a rejiggered use tax to win the backing of the commission and housing advocates on a second referendum.

"There's too much need. It's been neglected for too long to just take $5 million and say, 'We'll do what we can,'" says Colleen Starkloff, chairwoman of the committee. "I don't want to fight about the money, but I will if I have to."

Another commission member, Rachelle L'Ecuyer, wasn't impressed with the worldview of the mayor's staff: "What I picked up on in that meeting was they didn't have an idea of what affordable housing means."

But in a cash-strapped city, they know $20 million when they see it.

The commissioners argue that Slay and City Hall strongman Jeff Rainford obsess about gentrification and attracting upscale earners to live in the city but don't realize that this type of development won't happen until neighborhoods are stabilized by giving working-class citizens affordable options for housing.

"Jeff Rainford knows very well what this is about," says Barrett. "There's a lot of bravado going on right now and a lot of, frankly, foolish talk which is going to alienate the housing community and reduce the chances that people are going to be willing to go to the bargaining table."

Smoke signals from the mayor's staff play up the perception that the current arrangement provides $10 million a year to fund just the homeless and the poor when what is needed are more police and help for middle-class neighborhoods. That's an image housing advocates are anxious to blow away.

"It's got to be real clear that the majority of the money, 60 percent, goes to working-class people who are teachers and firefighters and policemen who need a home in the city. We're hurting people who are trying to work for their community and make St. Louis a better place," says Barrett. "We have to argue it on its merits. The vision that we had of 800 homes getting built, financed or repaired would have really changed St. Louis. We talk about how important it is to have dedicated money for health and housing versus having money that is subject to the whim of 28 aldermen and one mayor."

But this one mayor and his minions have begun the media campaign, as shown by the shameless shilling already started by the P-D's Walter Winchell wannabe, Jerry Berger. First there's an item saying Fire Chief Sherman George is anxious to get some of the money redirected from the use tax to pay for a "portable radio system" for firefighters. All that was missing was a tacky reference to how such a system might have saved the lives of firefighters Derek Martin and Robert Morrison, who died in a fire on May 3. Don't be surprised when that's trotted out for an ad.

Another trial balloon floated by Berger, probably after being inflated by City Hall Minister of Propaganda Richard Callow, was in Tuesday's paper. The Bergermeister typed that the housing commission members were ready to compromise if they were guaranteed $5 million from the use tax. Well, that's simply not true. That sort of disinformation was published to make the housing commission look greedy if they asked for something less that what they are already getting.

In the same Tuesday's paper, a P-D editorial compared what the mayor's staff was doing with the use-tax grab to bankrupt parents robbing their children's lemonade stand. Too bad more people read Berger than the editorial page.

Whatever spin is applied, the simple truth is, badges and fire houses win out over housing for the working class and health care for the poor. And a mayor desperate for money knows this.

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