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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.

 

 

Opinion: Better Together Merger Plan Doesn’t Go Far Enough

January 30, 2019 Featured, STL Region Comments Off on Opinion: Better Together Merger Plan Doesn’t Go Far Enough
Herbert (Bert) Walker III, a cousin of George Herbert Walker Bush, speaking at the Better Together kickoff event on November 19, 2013. Emcees from KMOX, John Hancock and Michael Kelley

I moved to St. Louis in 1990, at age 23.  I was born & raised in Oklahoma City, OK.

As a child OKC was the largest U.S. city. Better put, it was the biggest in terms of land area. It had annexed itself into this position. As of 2016 it had fallen to the 8th largest — still capable of holding 7 major cities within its boundaries.

For most U.S. cities, annexation was the norm. Between 1764 and 1876 St. Louis grew in physical size through annexation. But after The Great Divorce the boundaries of the City of St. Louis were locked into place. At the time they thought it would be many decades before development pushed up against the rural city limits. They were very wrong.

Had the divorce not happened, allowing St. Louis city to exist outside of St. Louis County, the city would’ve annexed small towns, villages, and unincorporated areas. Cites that could annex — did. This enabled them to grow physically and keep outward moving population within the tax base.

Without the ability to annex, it has suffered greatly. Population loss, topping crime rankings, etc. By extension, the region has also suffered greatly. For the region to attract investment, employers, etc we must take action. A unified city is the only answer.

By creating one big St. Louis we change the outside perception of St. Louis as a dying core city that lost most of its population and is among the most dangerous places. The new St. Louis, the size of the city & county, would become the 10th largest U.S. city, by land area — still smaller than OKC (8th) and Houston (9th).

Let that sink in. If we combined St. Louis city & county the total land area (588 square miles) would still be smaller than Houston and 8 other U.S. cities.  Total population would move us up as well.

It will cause problems too. There will be less elected officials, including minorities. However, I think having more investment, jobs, opportunities, etc is worth eliminating fiefdoms.

At this point I’ve only browsed Better Together’s 160 page report, but I’m disappointed by the fragmentation it would leave in place. Zoning & trash hauling, are two examples.

Here are the non-scientific results from the recent Sunday Poll:

Q: Which “merger” plan for St. Louis do you prefer?

  1. Consolidate St. Louis City and all St. Louis County municipalities into one: 23 [53.49%]
  2. Add St. Louis City back into St. Louis County, along with all the existing municipalities: 13 [30.23%]
  3. Other: 4 [9.3%]
    1. Merge and include the schools the city schools need the funding.
    2. Require any “city” to have its own fire department, otherwise disincorporate.
    3. incremental cooperation
    4. merge city and 4 counties
  4. Unsure: 2 [4.65%]
  5. None, leave things exactly as they are: 1 [2.33%]

No doubt this topic will consume a lot of attention over the next year plus.  The Great Divorce was a huge mistake, with huge negative consequences — it’s going to take a huge solution. My gut feeling is it needs to be bigger than proposed.

— Steve Patterson

 

Opinion: We Must Invest Beyond The Central Corridor

January 23, 2019 Featured, North City, Politics/Policy, St. Louis County, STL Region Comments Off on Opinion: We Must Invest Beyond The Central Corridor
Campbell House Museum on Locust, the last mansion from Lucas Place

From the early days to St. Louis’ founding in 1764, being up from the Mississippi River was a good thing. Namely, those who spread along the banks north & south of the original spot were subject to flooding. Those uphill from the center weren’t subject to floods.

Following the cholera epidemic and fire in 1849, wealthy citizens became convinced that it was no longer desirable to live in downtown St. Louis. James Lucas and his sister Anne Lucas Hunt soon offered a solution. They developed the idea of the “Place,” a neighborhood with deed restrictions that ensured it remained apart from the city and general population. The main thoroughfare was aptly called Lucas Place. Originally Lucas Place (now Locust Street) extended between 13th and 16th streets when the city limits were just one block to the west between 17th and 18th streets. When established, Lucas Place was west of the developed portion of the city, making it St. Louis’ first “suburban” neighborhood.

Lucas priced the lots so that only the wealthy could afford the live there. He also built restrictions into the deeds so that the properties could not be used for commercial purposes. (Campbell House Museum)

As the city’s population ballooned Lucas Place was no longer the desirable location it once was, so the wealthy moved further west.

Originally, the streets around the intersection of Lindell and Grand featured row after row of stately houses, mansions, and even a private street. By the late 19th century, the area had become the wealthiest neighborhood in the city, home to some the most important members of St. Louis society.

Sitting west of the central city and along major streetcar routes, Midtown proved highly desirable to those fleeing the coal-fueled pollution further east. Sitting on a hill, upwind from the central city, the neighborhood began to receive the accouterments befitting its tony status in St. Louis. Vandeventer Place, a private street on the northern edge of the neighborhood, served as the crown jewel of the rapidly expanding area.

Platted by the famous German-American surveyor Julius Pitzman, Vandeventer Place exacted strict obedience from the affluent homeowners who purchased plots along its regal tree-lined boulevard. The new mansions that filled the private street conformed to rigid design and expense requirements that only the wealthiest industrialists in St. Louis could afford. Interestingly, the governance of the street required unanimous votes to change the street’s charter. (St. Louis Magazine)

In 2014 I posted about the dire economic disinvestment in the north county area at Chambers and Lewis & Clark. Click image for May 2014 post.

The Central West End was next, and this continues today. Reinvestment has been seen throughout this “Central Corridor” for a few decades now. As North St. Louis continues to hallow out, we’re seeing North St. Louis County experience devastating disinvestment. With typical suburban development patterns, North St. Louis County is a very large area. It still has nice neighborhoods, but the signs of change are all around. Take Spanish Lake, for example:

When three nearby Shop ‘n Save stores closed in November, it left shoppers fewer options and created what the USDA classifies as a food desert.

Spanish Lake is in the northeast corner of unincorporated St. Louis County. The cities of Florissant and Ferguson are on its west side; the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers are on the east.

The population is just under 20,000 and has been shrinking for decades, while the poverty rate has increased.

Until recently, Spanish Lake residents had several options for grocery shopping. Three Shop ‘n Save stores located along the western edge of the community provided easy access to fresh, affordable produce. (St. Louis Public Radio)

Those who’ve been on the fence about moving elsewhere are going to reconsider. I can’t say that North St. Louis County has reached a tipping point, but it feels like it’s close.

The recent non-scientific Sunday Poll was about reinvesting in areas north & south of the Central Corridor.

Q: Agree or disagree: St. Louis’ “Central Corridor” (West from Arch) has always been a high priority, areas North & South should just accept this.

  • Strongly agree: 2 [6.06%]
  • Agree: 6 [18.18%]
  • Somewhat agree: 3 [9.09%]
  • Neither agree or disagree: 2 [6.06%]
  • Somewhat disagree: 3 [9.09%]
  • Disagree: 9 [27.27%]
  • Strongly disagree: 8 [24.24%]
  • Unsure/No Answer: 0 [0%]

No, we should not accept this. We can’t afford, as a region, to write off huge areas. Unfortunately, I think the regional pattern was set long before any of us were born. That’s not to say we can’t rethink our approach. I just don’t see the leadership or willpower to take on the change that would be necessary.

— Steve Patterson

 

Sunday Poll: Should City & County Police Merge?

January 6, 2019 Featured, St. Louis County, STL Region Comments Off on Sunday Poll: Should City & County Police Merge?
Please vote below

A few local news stories caught my eye last week, but one was more thought-provoking than the others:

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar has a plan to take over policing in St. Louis, but leave the 52 municipal police departments in the county intact — a move that appears to contradict efforts underway to erase the city and county’s fractured government structure.

The goals outlined in Belmar’s plan, titled “Law Enforcement: A Regional Approach,” include: “Increase the effectiveness of police services across the region; increase the equity of police services in the region; and recalibrate the public safety image of St. Louis.”

The idea stands in contrast to a campaign to consolidate municipal governments and police departments throughout St. Louis County with the city. That effort is headed by Better Together, a nonprofit group that has spent years studying how fragmented government affects the region. The task force is expected to release its report and corresponding plan this month. (Post-Dispatch)

Today’s poll is on Belmar’s proposal:

This non-scientific poll will automatically close at 8pm tonight. Wednesday I’ll share the results and my thoughts.

— Steve Patterson

 

Readers Skeptical About Major Earthquake in Their Lifetimes

December 19, 2018 Featured, Missouri, STL Region Comments Off on Readers Skeptical About Major Earthquake in Their Lifetimes
The elevated sections of I-64 in St. Louis have been retrofitted to hopefully withstand a major earthquake.

Earthquakes happen all the time, we just don’t feel them. I’m nearly 52 and have never felt an earthquake.

My oldest brother was living in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, my other brother was living in the Los Angeles area during the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. A close personal friend was living in Seattle during the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake. My relatives in Oklahoma have all felt their frequent, but minor, earthquakes. I’d be ok with never feeling one, but that time may come.

Here in St. Louis we’re part of at least two seismic zones:

With the New Madrid fault just a hundred miles south of St. Louis, it’s long been known that the region is at a greater risk for an earthquake than other parts of the Midwest. But new research indicates that St. Louis is part of an area that has seismic activity of its own.

Geologists have identified a new seismic zone stretching from St. Louis to Cape Girardeau along the Mississippi River called the Ste. Genevieve Seismic Zone. Their research indicates that the zone is capable of producing moderate earthquakes every few decades and has the potential to produce a major earthquake every 2,000 to 4,000 years.

“It’s a roll of the dice, right. If you’re unlucky, it could happen in your lifetime. The odds are not high,” Indiana University Geologist Gary Pavlis said.

A moderate earthquake measures about a magnitude 5 on the Richter scale. Pavlis said they can be felt but would only dislodge a few bricks here and there.

While the Ste. Genevieve Seismic Zone may not produce anything major in our lifetimes, the same can’t be said of the New Madrid Seismic Zone. OK, someone who’s 90 might not see the big one in their lifetimes, but those in your 20s may. It might happen next week.

There is broad agreement in the scientifc community that a continuing concern exists for a major destructive earthquake in the New Madrid seismic zone. Many structures in Memphis, Tenn., St. Louis, Mo., and other communities in the central Mississippi River Valley region are vulnerable and at risk from severe ground shaking. This assessment is based on decades of research on New Madrid earthquakes and related phenomena by dozens of Federal, university, State, and consulting earth scientists. (USGS)

Those in floodplain areas might experience the worst of it, because of liquefaction of the soil.

In the recent non-scientific poll more than half don’t expect the big one to hit St. Louis in their lifetimes:

Q: Agree or disagree: A major earthquake will “wreck” St. Louis in my lifetime.

  • Strongly agree: 3 [10.71%]
  • Agree: 2 [7.14%]
  • Somewhat agree: 7 [25%]
  • Neither agree or disagree: 1 [3.57%]
  • Somewhat disagree: 3 [10.71%]
  • Disagree: 6 [21.43%]
  • Strongly disagree: 3 [10.71%]
  • Unsure/No Answer: 3 [10.71%]

Hopefully they’re correct.

— Steve Patterson

 

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