Busted waterworks balloon shows Slay hasn't learned a Cardinal rule

Breeders will tell you a young dog should always be able to learn a new trick.

Apparently that truism of canine training doesn't apply to the kennel of politics and the city's semi-puppy-dog mayor, Francis Slay.

Slay, who has the rare opportunity to replay the strong hand he misplayed so badly on the new stadium for the Cardinals [Jim Nesbitt, "Seven-Card Stud," June 5], is having a tough time grasping the notion that he's got an ace in the hole -- the Cardinals want their new stadium to be in downtown St. Louis -- and doesn't need to give away every gumdrop in the city's candy store to keep them where it's in their very best business interests to be.

Witness the trial balloon the mayor recently floated with regard to selling the city waterworks in exchange for a quick, short-term slug of cash that could be used on the stadium and other unnamed city projects. That dead-on-arrival turkey was hauled up the flagpole by Frankie the Saint's chief of staff, Jeff Rainford, in one Post-Dispatch column, then quickly hauled back by City Hall mouthpiece Jerry Berger.

Rainford and other City Hall types have been quick to distance themselves from this rank nonstarter. With a nervous grin and a "just kidding" shrug, they say they never really gave serious consideration to this outlandish suggestion from an "outside consultant," attempting to create the impression that it just floated in over the transom, unbidden and uninvited, like manna from an out-of-town expert's briefcase.

Unfortunately for City Hall's early attempts at spinmeistering, the author of this proposal is a homeboy -- John Roach, a former alderman and former city development honcho. Roach is about as inside as an independent operator can get and has done extensive work on sale-and-leaseback arrangements that have generated instant cash for the forever-strapped Bi-State transit system.

Rainford says Roach and his son dialed in with a request to pitch their idea to Frankie the Saint, who quickly nixed the notion.

"We told them, 'It's a great idea, but we've got no interest in doing this in connection with raising money to build a new ballpark,'" says Rainford. "The mayor has said all along that the city's portion of the new ballpark would have to come out of the revenues for the new ballpark."

This was a tough juggling act. Rainford had to put as much distance as possible between Frankie the Saint and the Big Idea for a waterworks sellout without pissing on Roach. He also had to give his boss an open back door should he ever decide the city is in such a fiscal hole that it has to sell the crown jewels and silver flatware.

Ignore the pun and listen carefully:

"It is an idea that's worthy of consideration at some point in the future, but for right now it's not in the cards."

It may not be in any future deck of jokers and deuces, either. Consider this fun factoid: The city charter bars the sale or lease of the waterworks. Any sale of the waterworks would require a referendum that wins a 60 percent majority of city voters -- a hilarious irony, given Slay's opposition to putting the new stadium up for a vote.

Not even a tax increase would blow up as big a shitstorm as a referendum on selling the city waterworks, the insiders say. And if Frankie the Saint thinks the link between selling the waterworks and a Cardinals giveaway will ever be severed in the minds of voters, then he hasn't learned a thing from his father about this city's political tradition of grudges that get held forever.

Smart move to back away, Frankie -- for now and for later.

City pols and stadium critics have been quick to heap scorn on the proposal, wondering who would be crazy enough to sell one of only two sure-fire moneymaking enterprises owned by the city, a system that nets the city treasury $34 million a year and gives the city of St. Louis control over both its water supply and water rates. The other moneymaker is Lambert Field, which pumps about $5 million a year in tax revenue into the city's general fund.

"Why would you want to kill the golden goose that lays the golden eggs?" asks Alderwoman Sharon Tyus (D-20th Ward). "Are they that desperate to give the wealthy boys some money?"

Apparently so, says Fred Lindecke, one of the chief organizers of the Coalition Against Public Funding for Stadiums, the grassroots group that has managed to garner enough signatures to put the question of spending city money for a new stadium on the November ballot. Not only does the city have a $100 million hole to fill now that the Legislature has refused to approve a slug of state cash for the stadium, it's scrambling to fill potholes, treat the sick and poor and keep cops on the street.

"It's a sign to me what desperate straits the city is in -- not just on the Cardinals deal but the entire city financial picture," Lindecke says. "That idea was just another straw in the wind on the thinking of City Hall on how to make ends meet."

Apparently Slay has rediscovered the value of city water.

But he hasn't learned a damn thing about how to play the strong hand he holds in this stadium game. There's another card Frankie the Saint hasn't learned to play properly: the referendum Lindecke's group has just placed on the ballot. Instead of using it as leverage to force the Cardinals to do what's in their best interest -- and at the cheapest price for the city -- Slay is still in panic mode, bent on doing whatever it takes to keep the team downtown, casting about for more money the city can't afford to place in the pockets of moneybaggers such as Bill DeWitt.

The sharpies say that Frankie the Saint should grow a set of cojones and play this card like Amarillo Slim, tough and hard. But Lindecke says even this play has its price.

"It's possible for them to cook up a deal and ram it through the Board of Aldermen before the people have a chance to vote, but it's at his own political peril," says Lindecke. "If he rams this through, if he keeps going this way, his re-election campaign will be a referendum on the stadium."

Dip a paw in that cold water, Frankie.

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