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Opinion: Municipal Bankruptcy Not The Best Option For St. Louis At Present

March 6, 2019 Featured, Politics/Policy, STL Region Comments Off on Opinion: Municipal Bankruptcy Not The Best Option For St. Louis At Present
Eagleton Federal Courthouse, St. Louis

For at least a decade I’ve favored consolidating all the governments in St. Louis City & St. Louis County into one: municipalities, school districts, fire districts, water districts, etc. OK, maybe just 2-3 based purely on geography: urban vs rural.  My goal has been to improve the region and the lives of everyone living here.

But picking a solution comes later in the process:

1. Define the problem

  • Differentiate fact from opinion
  • Specify underlying causes
  • Consult each faction involved for information
  • State the problem specifically
  • Identify what standard or expectation is violated
  • Determine in which process the problem lies
  • Avoid trying to solve the problem without data

2. Generate alternative solutions

  • Postpone evaluating alternatives initially
  • Include all involved individuals in the generating of alternatives
  • Specify alternatives consistent with organizational goals
  • Specify short- and long-term alternatives
  • Brainstorm on others’ ideas
  • Seek alternatives that may solve the problem

3. Evaluate and select an alternative

  • Evaluate alternatives relative to a target standard
  • Evaluate all alternatives without bias
  • Evaluate alternatives relative to established goals
  • Evaluate both proven and possible outcomes
  • State the selected alternative explicitly

4. Implement and follow up on the solution

  • Plan and implement a pilot test of the chosen alternative
  • Gather feedback from all affected parties
  • Seek acceptance or consensus by all those affected
  • Establish ongoing measures and monitoring
  • Evaluate long-term results based on final solution

I don’t know that everyone in the region agrees on the problem, or that a problem even exists. Still with Better Together pushing one solution, many are scrambling to find alternative solutions. Recently St. Louis County Councilman Tom Fitch proposed St. Louis follow Detroit’s 2013 example: file bankruptcy.

The Revised Statutes of Missouri (427.100) grant municipalities the power to declare bankruptcy. It’s time for Better Together and the city of St. Louis to look at this option instead of destroying the current county governance system, which is working for most of the region. Only after the city of St. Louis has reorganized its system of local governance and becomes financially viable should there be a discussion about re-entry into St. Louis County as one of its municipalities.

Bankruptcy isn’t a preferred option for any city. However, it is working for Detroit. It can work for St. Louis — without destroying many of the communities in St. Louis County that we are proud to call home. (Post-Dispatch guest column)

Outgoing 24th Ald. Scott Ogilvie wrote an excellent rebuttal.  Still, I think many options need to be aired, reviewed.

From a 2011 Pew Charitable Trust article, discussing the risks of a municipal bankruptcy:

A Chapter 9 filing immediately raises the likelihood of a credit rating downgrade and, as a result, higher future borrowing costs for the government. The damage to a municipality’s image may result in an exodus of residents or less business investment, which can hit government tax collections and make the underlying budget crisis worse. Public workers worry about slashed salaries or benefits, and all residents could see higher taxes, loss of services or deferred maintenance on necessities such as schools, roads and bridges — although those consequences can precede bankruptcy, too. Even before Jefferson County [Alabama] declared bankruptcy this month, it had laid off more than 500 employees, closed four satellite courthouses and reduced law enforcement services.

It’s important to note that cities don’t emerge from Chapter 9 debt free. Detroit filed bankruptcy in July 2013, exited in December 2014. Retirees took a big hit.

Detroit ultimately shed $7 billion in debt and was able to restructure another $3 billion and put about $1.7 billion into improvements.

In the end, the bankruptcy proceedings eliminated $7.8 billion in payments to retired workers and the city got off the hook for $4.3 billion in unfunded health-care obligations and future costs. 

It could have been far worse. At one point during the bankruptcy journey, the city’s general retirees were threatened with the possibility of seeing their pension checks slashed by up to 34 percent and police and fire retirees were looking at cuts of up to 10 percent. 

Police and firefighter pensioners did not see upfront cuts to their pension checks. But they saw their 2.25 percent annual cost-of-living adjustments reduced to about 1 percent. Police and fire also saw cuts relating to health care, and many are struggling with higher premiums under the Affordable Care Act, too.  (Detroit Free Press)

As Ald. Ogilvie pointed out, a lot of St. Louis retirees live in St. Louis County and elsewhere in the region. Cutting their benefits would ripple through the region. Funding pension obligations are a big issue all over the country, not just in St. Louis. Pensions are for people, they must be considered.

There has been one government bankruptcy in the region, a levee district in St. Peters filed in 2014.

I don’t think St. Louis is anywhere close to being desperate enough to file Chapter 9. If it did, it would pull much of the region’s reputation down with it.

We need to agree on the problems facing the region and explore all options.

 

 

Tickets Will Not Be Sold Here

March 4, 2019 Featured, Planning & Design, Popular Culture Comments Off on Tickets Will Not Be Sold Here

At least personally, paper tickets have been obsolete for a while. I either print my ticket or show it on my phone. The latter is what we did last month on our round trip to/from Chicago via Amtrak.  What about for local events?

If you plan on going to a St. Louis Blues game this season, you’ll need to have a smartphone or at least an e-mail address. Tickets to the game are now completely mobile.

Staff said you can purchase tickets through the NHL app and pull them up on your phone. (Fox2)

I use a card for transit, not a paper pass, transfer, or ticket.  All this change has me wondering about ticket windows.

I doubt these 3 ticket windows at the Forest Park MetroLink station have ever been used. These were built in 2006 when the station changed for the Blue Line to Shrewsbury.
The Dome at America’s Center (aka convention center) has ticket windows scattered around the perimeter. Several have regular signs indicating “TICKETS WILL NOT BE SOLD HERE”
Here’s another
The main ticket area is in the center of the East (Broadway) side. There are seven sections for 14 total windows, but only seven have ever been set up with transaction drawers.

These are always closed when I pass by, not much going on that requires tickets. The recent UMC conference was busy, but no ticket sales.

Then lsat week I saw activity at the far window. The sign for tickets/will call was rolled out.
Yes, people & activity at one window.
Friday last week I noticed this trailer had been put into place along Convention Plaza (aka Delmar)

The event with physical ticket sales was the 2019 Monster Jam truck show held the last two days (March 2-3). Even they link to Ticketmaster for tickets.

The days of the ticket window are numbered.

— Steve Patterson

 

Sunday Poll: Should St. Louis File A Municipal Bankruptcy?

March 3, 2019 Featured, Politics/Policy, Sunday Poll Comments Off on Sunday Poll: Should St. Louis File A Municipal Bankruptcy?

I’m a policy geek, I love reading about various policy solutions to problems.  Yesterday I finally found a topic for today’s poll.

Please vote below

The subject of today’s poll is municipal bankruptcy. I read articles for and against. To remain neutral I’m not going to quote from either.

Today’s poll will close at 8pm tonight.

— Steve Patterson

 

 

Ugly Local Primary To Be Held On Tuesday

March 1, 2019 Board of Aldermen, Featured, Politics/Policy Comments Off on Ugly Local Primary To Be Held On Tuesday

St. Louis’ partisan primary will be held Tuesday. However, though we have a general election a month later, the Democratic primary is THE election. The even-numbered wards are electing Aldermen and the entire city is electing the President of the Board of Aldernen.

In my view, this election cycle has been uglier than usual. The a accusations between candidates, bickering among supporters online, is the ugly I’m talking about. Maybe past elections were just as bad?

Four years ago the turnout was less than 10%. Embarrassing, but a competitive citywide race should increase turnout. I predict turnout will be under 15% — prove me wrong!

Be sure to vote Tuesday, the polls will be open 6am-7pm.

— Steve Patterson

 

Opinion: Closed Streets Do Not Reduce Crime

February 27, 2019 Crime, Featured, Transportation, Walkability Comments Off on Opinion: Closed Streets Do Not Reduce Crime

The recent non-scientific Sunday Poll was about closed streets and crime, prompted by a news story about new research at Saint Louis University:

St. Louis’ often-interrupted street grid is the outgrowth of the 1970s-era “defensible space” strategy to address rising crime championed by Oscar Newman, a prominent urban planner who was a Washington University architecture professor in the mid-1960s, according to the paper. That idea stems from the notion that an area is safer when residents feel a sense of ownership and control, which Newman described as allowing neighbors to focus their attention on “removing criminal activity from their communities.”

St. Louis became the birthplace of such ideas, according to the paper. And they haven’t had the desired effect. (Post-Dispatch)

Below is one such example where “Schoemehl pots”, just sections of sewer pipe, were used to limit vehicular traffic.

Schoemehl pots used in their traditional role of messing up the street grid, 2012 photo.

Their paper’s conclusion:

Oscar Newman’s defensible space theory is a product of St. Louis’s mid-century history. It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that St. Louis also offers a large-scale implementation of defensible space in the street barriers that constrict swaths of the city’s geography. The barriers scattered across the city’s landscape are a testament not only to former Mayor Vincent Schoemehl, the elected official most closely associated with the barriers, but to Newman himself. We have developed the most comprehensive known list of closures in the city, and find that the density of closures is not associated with less crime in neighborhoods. Our finding is an important one for St. Louis, given that addressing crime is the argument being made explicitly in the legislation that authorizes more recent installations of barriers. For other municipalities that may be considering defensible space or other techniques to “design out” crime, our findings suggest that street closures are at best ineffective and at worst associated with higher rates of violent crime in neighborhoods. They may also have secondary effects on first responders’ ability to reach the neighborhoods they serve. (Research paper)

I completely agree with the conclusions of the researchers, but I also think they should be looking at earlier changes to the urban street grid. As I’ve said before, when Harold Bartholomew (1889-1989) first arrived in St. Louis in the nineteen teens he quickly began assaulting our fine network of public streets. Writing decades later in the 1947 plan:

Since 1916 St. Louis has expended over $40,000,000 in opening, widening, connecting, and extending the system of major streets. Much has been accomplished in converting a horse and buggy street system to automobile needs. As the total volume of traffic increases, however, certain new needs arise. An example is the desirability of grade separations at extremely heavy intersections, such as at Grand and Market and at Kingshighway and Lindell. Likewise there is a need for complete separation of grade where traffic volume is sufficiently heavy to justify the cost involved. The Federal Government, which has helped finance our splendid system of national highways, has recently revised its policies and Congress has appropriated substantial funds to aid the cities in the construction of express highways and for facilitation of traffic flows from certain selected state highways through metropolitan areas to the central business districts of large cities. (1947 Plan)

In just three decades St. Louis spent today’s equivalent of nearly a half a billion dollars on dramatic changes to the street grid.  Half a billion!

Franklin Ave looking East from 9th, 1928. Collection of the Landmarks Association of St Louis

The reference to the “horse and buggy street system” illustrates he didn’t think it was suitable for the automobile. Bartholomew, a civil engineer by training, was no doubt influenced by the City Beautiful movement.

City Beautiful movement, American urban-planning movement led by architects, landscape architects, and reformers that flourished between the 1890s and the 1920s. The idea of organized comprehensive urban planning arose in the United States from the City Beautiful movement, which claimed that design could not be separated from social issues and should encourage civic pride and engagement. (Britannica)

This was soon followed by the modernists and their vision for roads to connect everything. The Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair was hugely popular, helped shape legislation that let to destructive urban renewal projects, interstate highways slicing through cities, etc.  See original 23-minute 1939 Futurama promo video.

Oscar Newman was born in 1935, so he was barely around during the 1939 fair. With the Great Depression & WWII the ideas from Futurama were on hold until he was a teen. Newman likely went along with most others, not foreseeing any problems with additional alterations to the street grid.

By the time republished his 1972 book urban renewal & highway projects had further disrupted the street grid beyond recognition. These changes are cumulative, not isolated. Our street grid was designed for the horse and buggy times — but that’s what made it go great. Street grids can take little changes and still function. St. Louis had decades of massive overwhelming changes to the street grid.

It has proven to be excessive. Abandonment, crime, etc are the results. I don’t know that it’s repairable.

Former Biddle Street, looking East toward 9th Street

The results from Sunday’s non-scientific poll:

Q: Agree or disagree: City streets closed to through traffic reduce crime.

  • Strongly agree: 1 [3.13%]
  • Agree: 2 [6.25%]
  • Somewhat agree: 6 [18.75%]
  • Neither agree or disagree: 2 [6.25%]
  • Somewhat disagree: 2 [6.25%]
  • Disagree: 9 [28.13%]
  • Strongly disagree: 9 [28.13%]
  • Unsure/No Answer: 1 [3.13%]

More than half correct don’t think closed streets reduce crime.

— Steve Patterson

 

 

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