(The Center Square) – St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones pledged full accountability for the spending of $84 million in federal COVID-19 funds, despite transparency measures cut from the bill.
"We are planning on setting up a transparency portal," Jones said. "Money [for] that was not replaced. We are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars and we have to make sure we don't drop the ball here. There were some other fixes to restore some of the administrative funds in the bill to help us set up a transparency portal, to hire a couple of more staff, and to make sure we are keeping in touch with our auditors. But a transparency portal will be set up so you can track every dollar spent."
Jones expressed appreciation to the St. Louis Board of Aldermen for restoring $5 million in direct financial payments to families negatively impacted by the pandemic. About 10,000 qualifying families will receive one-time $500 payments.
The board previously approved most of Jones’ plan for spending American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. On Tuesday, they added several amendments and additions during a 12-hour meeting.
On Monday, Jones held a media event where two women explained how $500 would change their lives. One struggled to buy food for her children and another was challenged after losing a family member to COVID-19.
“Their stories reflect the deep financial instabilities affecting our families and communities,” Jones said. “These payments will help thousands of families. I’ve been in their shoes when my son was a baby and I was in the state legislature. I would have qualified for this relief. An extra $500 would have paid for two weeks of daycare and pay other bills.”
Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, a retired master sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserve, opposed Jones' plan during Tuesday's meeting.
“We should not be giving out direct payments to people without some expectation that they're going to help themselves," Jones said. "This is just government giveaways and enabling people.
"We need to teach people how to fish and not just keep giving them fish. All we're doing is giving people fish right now. We're not teaching them anything. We're not getting anything back on the $5 million that we're going to appropriate for people to use to do whatever. We cannot legislate what they can use the money for, but if we put in there that they have to go to some classes and they have to empower themselves, then we get to the next level."
Boyd, whose ward covers the northwestern edge of the city, criticized colleagues for their approach to solving the complex poverty problem.
"They have no freaking clue about what it’s like to be poor and to live in neighborhoods like this," Boyd said. "[Being] a 'Goody Two Shoes' isn’t going to get it done. You can pat yourself on the back and talk about how you helped us all you want to, but that is not good enough. We need people to be empowered, not enabled."
Last week, Board President Lewis Reed removed from the ARPA plan the $5 million in direct payments to people and allocated it to police overtime pay. The 2022 fiscal year budget, Jones' first since being elected mayor in April, reallocated $4 million from the police department and added most of it to the affordable housing fund ($1 million), the health department’s victim services program ($1 million), human services case management ($1 million) and $500,000 for affirmative litigation efforts in the city counselor’s office. The final ARPA plan includes $5 million for direct payments and police overtime.
Reed also budgeted $53 million in ARPA funds for a citywide housing development fund and four economic development funds devoted to areas on the city’s north side. Matt Moak, the city’s interim city counselor, consulted with Rubin Brown, a local accounting firm, and told Reed the U.S. Treasury’s guidance for ARPA funds excludes general economic development.
“This is why you don't wait until the last minute to turn in your homework,” Jones said of Reed’s proposal.
However, Jones promised funds for the city’s north side to “reverse decades of disinvestment.”
Other amendments included:
- $5 million for the St. Louis Board of Elections to expand ballot access in the city;
- An additional $2 million for the St. Louis Area Agency on Aging for home repair and $1.5 million for direct support care workers;
- An increased amount of funds for diversion programs, including clinician-first responder programs and mental health support for vulnerable populations;
- Agreements with the St. Louis Mental Health Board, St. Louis Public Schools and Bi-State Development to provide services, a year-round jobs program and free public transit for youth;
- A severability clause to shield the funds from legal challenges.
Jones organized the $84 million in funding for three broad areas:
- $6.75 million for public health infrastructure, including funding for mobile vaccine clinics and community canvasing;
- $63 million in direct economic relief, including housing and utility assistance, support for the unhoused, direct cash assistance and additional staff to assist residents in connecting with these services;
- $14.5 million to address the root causes of crime and improve public safety through increased funding for violence prevention programs, youth programming and jobs programs.