Hartmann: St. Louis Needs To Think Outside the Box with Rams Windfall

Creating a network of mental-health centers would be a great place to start

Group of excited people in Rams jerseys
The Rams may be gone, but the $500 million the Rams and NFL had to pay us is here to ease our troubles.

If the residents of the city and county were polled today about the single most pressing problem facing the St. Louis area, the result would be overwhelming: crime.

It wouldn’t be close. And the results wouldn’t vary all that much across the city-county divide. Even to the extent that crime statistics are skewed when compared to other metro areas by the existence of that divide, crime is still St. Louis’ albatross.

So, here’s a thought you probably won’t hear elsewhere: Let’s use a nice chunk of the $512 million settlement from the Rams and the NFL to focus on the crime problem. And, in particular, let’s replace talk with action on the subject of mental-health treatment as one means to address it.

To describe this idea as quixotic is a grand understatement, but I don’t care. If St. Louis doesn’t think outside the box about how to invest the windfall strategically — and with a rare sense of unity — it will miss a once-in-a-millennium opportunity.

First, some essential background. When St. Louis’ legal team brilliantly outfoxed the NFL and Rams owner Stan Kroenke with a litigation strategy for the ages, St. Louis won a $790 million settlement. An unreasonably healthy chunk went to those lawyers — like I said, they’re brilliant — but more than half a billion dollars landed in the coffers of the previously obscure entity known as the Regional Sports Authority.

The state created the RSA in 1989 to own and manage St. Louis’ downtown domed football stadium. It was only briefly beloved, but it did enable St. Louis to borrow the Rams for 20 years from Los Angeles.

Today, there are 512 million reasons that the RSA is no longer obscure. Its 11 members – five appointed by the state, three each from the city and county — presumably have discovered close new friendships beyond their wildest dreams.

This could not be more of a mess. Even if St. Louis were a well-oiled governance machine, it would be almost impossible to determine what to do with half a billion dollars in found money for which there is neither a governing statute nor precedent.

Throw in the extenuating circumstance that St. Louis is the single most balkanized collection of warring political fiefdoms of any metropolitan area in the nation, and this is not promising. There’s just no sugarcoating that reality.

Multiple sources tell me that the only real negotiation happening at the RSA — behind the scenes with no transparency, in keeping with local custom — is a nasty argument between the parties about who gets how large a piece of the pie. I’m also told that the newly popular kids on the RSA block are receiving all manner of friendly advice — from a wide range of interested parties — as to how to spend all that money.

The RSA probably couldn’t fill all those wish lists if it had $512 billion instead of $512 million. So let me add mine to the pile.

My working premise is that for the windfall to fulfill its potential, it must in large part be invested in initiatives or opportunities that fall outside the normal functions of government. Both the city and county have annual budgets in the $1 billion range. They could blow through this kind of money in a heartbeat.

Also, there’s the RSA’s statutory responsibility to the domed stadium that’s the reason for its existence. It will require resources now that the initial 30-year commitments from the city, county and state to support its building have expired. Who knows what that might entail?

Worse, there’s a real question about whether the RSA can structurally enact something like what I’m proposing. That can be fixed legislatively, although an effort to do so at the end of the last state legislative session failed, ominously.

But I still like my idea, so here it is: The city and county, working together, should make a serious capital investment in establishing a network of small, new community mental-health treatment facilities — open 24 hours, seven days a week — to serve the needs of citizens across the metro area.

That would also entail at least some funding to operate the clinics. And since there’s a counselor shortage, the money could also fund scholarships or special programs at local universities to help address the shortage.

The most direct analogy would be the two 24/7 Healthcare facilities that represent the only round-the-clock urgent-care centers in the region. They would provide outpatient services only.

People in St. Louis with mental-health challenges — or crises — very often have nowhere to turn. For a number of reasons, hospital emergency rooms are not always a viable option. And it’s disgraceful that someone experiencing a mental-health crisis in the middle of the night could have nowhere to turn.

Like it or not, addressing mental-health concerns is the only point of consensus for preventing violent crime across the nation’s vast partisan divide. If it were up to me, serious gun-control measures, starting with an assault-weapons ban, would be a top national priority. And while I don’t advocate defunding the police, I’m certain that America cannot police its way out its current crime problems.

At least pretty much everyone can agree on mental-health treatment as a pressing priority. Yet, most local governments have neither the funding capacity nor the political will to embark on creating an ambitious network of mental-health treatment facilities.

But for this one shining moment, St. Louis could.

The network could be a model for the nation. It might be sustained, at least in part, by private grants or federal government programs. This would not try to recreate the failed models of large mental-health institutions. Instead, it would meet citizens needing help were they live.

And even setting aside the crime-reduction goal that is the genesis for the idea, community mental-health clinics would be a wonderful way to attack the tragic problem of suicide, which has increased to epidemic levels in St. Louis and nationally.

The unusual investment would be just one use of the settlement money. Plenty more will go directly to the city and county governments, ideally for capital spending or initiatives outside business as usual. Trash pickup in the city might be a problem for which a one-time capital investment could help.

Finally, watch for the business community to demand that it’s beneficiaries in the political class throw boatloads of dollars at the usual chamber-of-commerce priorities. Seeing as how that’s about all government does these days, that would be a fine temptation to resist, but don’t hold your breath.

Now, back to your regularly scheduled politics as usual.

Ray Hartmann founded the
Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on Donnybrook at 7 p.m. on Thursdays on the Nine Network and St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).
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