St. Louis County voters took what they thought was a major step to upgrade police in April 2017, when they approved by a whopping 63 percent margin something called Proposition P.
To the 101,964 of us folks who voted for the measure, it was widely understood that the "P" in Proposition P stood for "P" as in police, because that was how the measure was sold by county officials, without qualification. The phrase "public safety" was contained in the fine print, but this was unmistakably a measure to increase spending on police, in a variety of ways.
Anyone familiar with ballot measures knew that at least some of the money would get diverted for other purposes. That's because the spending for Proposition P would get appropriated by politicians with a "P." And diverting taxpayer-approved funding is what they do, at all levels of government.
But flash forward to today, less than three years later, and the county government has inexplicably run out of Proposition P funds, despite the fact that the proposition has generated more money than expected. It is projected to bring county government almost $50 million this year.
Last year, the county reached a three-year deal with police officers, including some raises, consistent with the mission of Prop P. But this year — specifically, last week — county residents learned that as a result of that agreement, the Prop P kitty, which had an ending balance of $20.9 million, is suddenly "overbudgeted."
Councilman Tim Fitch, R-3rd District and former county police chief, is leading the charge in wondering aloud how this could possibly have happened. Fitch told me "it's a very good question" as to how the county could already be upside down with a such a large and growing pot of money.
Fitch and his fellow Republican councilmen Mark Harder and Ernie Trakas are, to their credit, demanding answers of County Executive Sam Page, a Democrat, who for the time being doesn't have much to say. Here's hoping this doesn't remain a partisan issue, as the words "Well, those Republicans sure are right on this one" do not emerge comfortably from my lips.
Fortunately, at least one Democrat, County Assessor Jake Zimmerman — who is challenging Page for county executive in the August 4 primary — is demanding a county audit of Prop P funds. More on that later.
For now, the critics here are right. The obvious explanation is that the money promised for police has gone to all sorts of other purposes, perhaps benign ones that might be rationalized by the proposition's general language regarding public safety. If all was well with the Prop P fund balance, that might be fine. But all is not well.
Here in River City we have trouble with a capital "T" and that rhymes with "P" and that stands for prisons, parks, prosecutors, playgrounds, personnel, perks, pens and pencils, pet projects and perhaps possible pending purposes. County residents should take comfort that the presidential candidate of Access Hollywood fame isn't part of St. Louis County government.
To be fair, some of the Prop P spending diverted to other purposes — say, the county jail — seems reasonable enough. When the question arose on our TV show Donnybrook as to whether the county should use Prop P dollars to give needed raises to nurses working at the jail, it didn't take a profile in courage for me to respond, "Of course they should get this money. If they're not part of public safety, who is?"
Now I disagree with me. As to the nurses themselves, it's still a no-brainer that they get needed raises, but that's a general county budget priority. And the experience with Proposition P fund diversion — much of it sanctioned by bills approved by the county council — cries out for a larger principle:
"Spend Proposition P like you sold Proposition P."
This would not be that hard to do. It turns out there was a very clearly presented list of spending purposes for Proposition P laid out in 2017 on a webpage appropriately titled "Yes on Prop P." However vague the fine print of the ballot measure might have been, the sales pitch to the voters of St. Louis County was as plain as it could be.
It's still online at yesonpropp.com. Here's what was promised:
• Hiring more police officers
• A second police officer in patrol cars when necessary
• Increasing police and department staff salaries
• Installing dashboard cameras in police vehicles
• Expanding officer training on topics like peaceful conflict resolution
• Providing body cameras for officers;
• Developing a computerized crime reporting system.
The cameras and increased training in conflict resolution are quite important to those of us who have issues with the status quo in policing. But other parts are equally important, such as the increased salaries and staffing and technical support for police officers who, by the way, do risk their lives every day in service of county residents.
The bottom line is that Proposition P was a really good idea and there's no valid reason why the funds it has generated cannot and should not be spent for the purposes that were specifically advertised to the voting public, 63 percent of whom said "yes." But it's pretty clear that the Prop P bank account wouldn't be under water if that's all that happened with the money.
So, what to do? That brings us back to the matter of a county auditor demanded, appropriately enough, by Zimmerman. I asked Fitch about that, and his response was that it's fine, but not until the county gets a real auditor.
Both Zimmerman and Fitch are taking a shot against Page, whose office isn't saying much for the moment. The problem for Page is that County Auditor Mark Tucker is a longtime close associate — by his own reckoning — whom Page brought into the county council when he was its president.
Trouble is, Tucker hasn't done actual audits that the public is aware of. In 2018, more than a year after taking his position, Tucker was blistered in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch piece headlined, "He's been the St. Louis County auditor for a year. But he hasn't issued an audit." If that's changed, it has largely escaped public view.
There's also the detail that Tucker apparently lacked a background in auditing or accounting when hired. In fairness, he wasn't a stranger to government. Missouri Ethics Commission records show that in a previous decade, Tucker was a registered lobbyist for, among many others, Rex Sinquefield and the Missouri Society of Anesthesiologists, the latter near and dear to Page's heart.
So, I agree with both Democrat Zimmerman, that the county needs an audit, and Republican Fitch, that it be conducted by someone not named Mark Tucker. Perhaps the audit wouldn't reflect poorly upon Page at all, but at least it would follow the money.
Until then, it appears, that what happened to the Prop P dollars will be lost in a political fog.
That's politics with a "P."
Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).