The next mayor will assume leadership of a City with a long list of challenges, but without a magic wand. The frustration of any St. Louis mayor is many of the challenges St. Louis faces are bigger than the City. They are regional problems, but our region lacks any regional level of government to tackle them. That said, there are things that the mayor can do. Things within reach that will make local government more effective, useful, and less frustrating for residents. The next mayor should start by going back to the basics and focus on managing St. Louis government.
St. Louis enters a new phase with an uncertain relationship to state government. Republicans can now enact any measure they see fit without the check of a governor's veto. The next mayor of St. Louis needs to forge a strong relationship with the mayor of Kansas City in order to work to preserve essential revenue sources for the state's two major cities. First of all, both need to make a forceful argument for retaining the earnings tax is. If the state moves to eliminate the earnings tax for St. Louis and Kansas City, we'll end up with the two largest cities in bankruptcy, which will be a disaster for the entire state. The next mayor needs to be clear: There is no alternative to the earnings tax that will keep Kansas City and St. Louis solvent.
The next mayor should reform the way the City plans and delivers public works projects. In most places the local Public Works or Transportation Departments have primary responsibility for planning and managing projects ranging from park improvements to paving. In St. Louis aldermen continue to play an outsized role not just in budgeting for projects, but in originating what improvements are made. 28 individual anemic planning processes don't serve residents well. We need our Public Works and Streets Departments to take a larger role in identifying, planning, and explaining what projects we're doing and why. Rather than a long list of examples, here's just one: We don't even know which streets we're repaving next year. There's no list. Its public works malpractice.
Police Department: At this point its no secret morale within the Police Dept. is low, and we're struggling to recruit, hire, and retain an adequate number of police officers. Current officers are overworked, working too many overtime hours, and responding to too many calls because there's simply too much work for the number of officers that are employed. The area I frequently point to is homicide detectives. We probably need 50% more people working in that position. Given our homicide rate, you'd think we would have prioritized that. We haven't. Its time we did. We will likely need more revenue to pay for the number of police officers we need - but what other choice do we have?
We need an Apollo Mission-like focus on crime. You can't correct a problem until you admit its there. For years leadership chose to minimize the enormous public safety problem in St. Louis. That choice meant we have spent years NOT prioritizing improving safety and reducing crime. From allowing people to get a busy signal when they dial 911, to losing connections to witnesses and informants in neighborhoods, to never developing a city-wide camera program, we've just done maintenance on the problem. If the region can raise over $200 million in private contributions for the Arch Grounds and Museum, we could also focus the charitable community on crime prevention. We have to. While we've built two world-class parks (Forest Park and the Gateway Arch), city services and public safety have become worse just a few miles away. We have to change that.
Traffic Safety: In the 10 years that the Mayor refused to allow a policy that would permit things like raised crosswalks and speed tables to be installed in St. Louis, Chicago installed 10,000, and residents want more. In the same time alderman in St. Louis received about 1,000,000 complaints about cars speeding through neighborhoods. Residents are sick of speeding. They see it for what it is, a dangerous habit that makes kids less safe and neighborhoods less livable. The next mayor should get serious about slowing people down. We'll never have enough police to do it, we need to build traffic calming that gets the job done.
City's fiscal situation: There are few cities swimming in cash, and the tendency is for people to think the financial situation is bad everywhere. In St. Louis our financial situation has taken a marked turn for the worse the last five years. Our credit rating has fallen. Our cash reserves are too low. We have enormous unfunded liabilities, we can't pay certain categories of job enough to adequately recruit (like police officers) and our population continues to decline (albeit at a much reduced rate) so the longer term outlook for our tax base is unsteady. A municipal bankruptcy in St. Louis would be chaotic and catastrophic. The next mayor needs to guard revenue sources, spend strategically, and invest in salaries and equipment for essential services like the Police Department and Refuse. We need to be especially conservative about adding new long-term liabilities (ahem, City-owned soccer stadiums) that cost more than they deliver in tax revenue.
While the Mayor's Office has only limited influence over the City's school system, they do have more influence over charter schools. What parents are looking for is continuity throughout the system. Charters that only serve a limited number of grades are not making the impact they could. The same is true for many families in the SLPS system. The transitions from elementary to middle school, and middle to high school are more uncertain than they could be. There is much more choice in the system than a decade ago, but parents also want predictability and continuity over the course of a student's school career.
Finally, we need to intentionally refocus on neighborhoods outside the central corridor. We need to improve livability for residents, north and south, living in what I call the "normal" neighborhoods of St. Louis. Neighborhoods that are primarily single family and two family, that are relatively stable, and are not experiencing dramatic changes or large developments like in the central corridor. The central corridor has simply eaten up way more brain-power in City Hall than Holly Hills has, for instance. We need to think more clearly about what a resident's experience with local government is, and how to improve service. We are not succeeding as a city if we have a great Gateway Arch for tourists, but residents aren't getting their trash picked up. There are no shortage of ideas on how to do this - and many of them cost almost nothing. They are simply about thinking about the experience of living in St. Louis from a resident's perspective, and devoting people to working to improve that. What I've seen, first hand, is too frequently that isn't the case today. While we can't abandon efforts at redevelopment, we need to constantly remind the next mayor that the people living here today must be the number one priority. If we are a great place for current residents to live, we don't have to worry about attracting new people, it will happen naturally. To whoever wins, good luck!