Paul McKee's Yard-Maintenance Update: Mow Your Own Lawn, Mister!

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Ever play red light, green light? The manner in which a plan to mow Paul McKee's lawns on the public dime is unfolding sounds a bit like that playground game.

First Marvin Steele, a construction businessman who is working with the north-side community organization Better Family Life, tells me that he's recruiting teenagers for a federally funded program called Pathways. The program will be funded with part of a half-million-dollar federal outlay secured earlier this spring by U.S. Rep. William "Lacy" Clay. The young people will mow lawns in north St. Louis, where O'Fallon-based developer Paul McKee owns hundreds of properties. In fact, Steele tells me, McKee's company McEagle Properties will be Pathways' main client.

Green light.

But is it legal to spend federal tax money on labor for private landowners? I call the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment (SLATE), which is responsible for distributing the federal funds. (SLATE is part of a national network of career centers, which are basically dedicated to administering federal jobs programs.) SLATE executive director Tom Jones sounds a little troubled by the prospect of taxpayers footing the bill for work on private property. He says he'll have to have a talk with Steele.

Yellow light.

Riverfront Times publishes my story about the conundrum in our May 15 issue. Next time I talk to Jones, he says he has checked with an authority at the U.S. Department of Labor, who says it's OK for Pathways to proceed as planned, with an estimated bankroll of $134,000. That breaks down to 84 laborers working full-time at minimum wage for six weeks this summer.

Green light.

Meanwhile, Mayor Francis Slay's chief of staff, Jeff Rainford, appears on KMOX radio (1120 AM) and tells talk-show host Charlie Brennan that Steele got it wrong: No federal funds will be used on McKee's properties.

While he's at it, Rainford addresses the beef many have with McKee: The fact that the well-off developer has done little to maintain the hundreds of north St. Louis properties he has accumulated, choosing instead to pay the city for upkeep and/or demolition after the sites become nuisances. Here's some of what Rainford said on KMOX (you can download that entire segment in mp3 form here):

So yeah, are there problems with his properties? Yes. Is it going to problem properties court? Yes. Did we put pressure, as did the aldermen, for him to hire somebody to maintain these on an ongoing basis? Yes. Is he doing it with Urban Solution [Steele's construction company]? Yes. Has he handled these properties badly? Yes. Are his intentions good? Yes.

I tried to reach Rainford. Why was he saying Steele was all wrong? Or had the mayor just been caught off-guard? Was that a red light, or what?

Now it looks as though the game is finally over.

A spokeswoman for the Labor Department tells me, "If the scenario you described is happening, whereby they are taking care of private lawns, that situation would in fact be illegal under various laws."

She adds that the main law in question is the Workforce Investment Act, which governs career centers like SLATE.

Jones maintains that the Labor Department's opinion is contrary to what he was told. In any case, he says he decided late last week that Pathways would not receive any federal money. He says he didn't want the public to think McEagle was getting special treatment. "I'm certain some people were wondering, 'Why that particular property?'" Jones says. "They'll have to look for funding somewhere else. I don't know where they're going to get it. They're not going to get it from us."

Jones says he's working now on a proposal to the Employment and Training Administration outlining how SLATE plans to use the earmark. (When Congress had to trim its omnibus spending bill to avoid a presidential veto, Clay's share was trimmed from $536,000 to $527,000.)

Also, the money won't be available until July 1, a month later than originally scheduled. Says the Labor Department spokeswoman: "That I was told emphatically."

-Kathleen McLaughlin

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