On Tuesday, November 7, St. Louis voters approved Proposition P, which will raise the sales tax in the city to fund salary increases for police officers and firefighters. Proposition P – which passed easily, 60 to 40 percent – will also give St. Louis one of the highest sales tax rates in the country, placing yet another economic burden on poor people with limited choices, and yet another reason for people with mobility to spend their money outside of the city.
The city's adoption of Proposition P showed the continued strength of the shortsighted white establishment that kept Francis G. Slay in office as mayor for four terms and narrowly elected Lyda Krewson to succeed him. Proposition P was strongly supported by the white status quo and a few key black officeholders. Mayor Krewson championed it, Alderman Stephen Conway and Aldermanic President Lewis Reed saw it through the Board of Aldermen, and the Kelley Group, political consultants for both Krewson and St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, ran the Prop P campaign.
The St. Louis police officers who (along with firefighters) will benefit from the passage of Prop P also demonstrated the value of old-fashioned voter intimidation tactics. Voters complained about police cars parked outside polling places, officers in uniform standing outside of polls or sitting inside to watch people vote, and even Jeff Roorda – the St. Louis Police Officer Association’s controversy-provoking business agent – glaring as they entered a polling place. These unseemly practices would be surprising in many other cities, but not here. “Whose polls? Our polls!” the police’s actions clearly implied.
Police point out that they work the polls for every election, delivering and protecting election judges and ballots, and there was no intention or attempt to intimidate voters.
And their actions were even more unseemly before election day. The Police Officer's Association initially opposed Proposition P because it contained funding for crime-prevention programs, in addition to salary increases. Then, in order to buy their needed support before election day, Krewson's administration signed a contract with the POA to dedicate most of the funds to salary increases. Having received the needed assurance that money would go to them, rather than to preventing crime, the POA jumped on board. During the mayoral campaign, Krewson promised not to work with Roorda, but by election night Krewson and Roorda were seen together at POA headquarters acting like allies. “Whose mayor? Our mayor,” the POA could justly claim.
The one bright point in the results is that a solid 40 percent of voters in this low-turnout election (only 21 percent of registered voters cast a ballot) voted to reject this regressive tax increase to reward an unaccountable police department. Led by Treasurer Tishaura O. Jones, Alderwoman Megan Ellyia Green, state Rep. Bruce Franks and an insurgent new generation of Democratic committeepeople, a growing progressive coalition still offers promise to bring much-needed change in our city.
It will be this coalition that continues to hold the mayor accountable. In her celebratory remarks, Krewson promised that she will use Prop P funds to "make significant investments on the prevention side, with funding for afterschool and summer job programs, recreation, social and mental health services and also demolishing vacant buildings." Considering that Krewson promised not to raise taxes to pay for police raises, and then worked with Roorda and the POA to do just that, we cannot simply take the mayor's new promises at face value. This progressive coalition must hold Krewson – and the police – accountable. They must continue to remind them both that power ultimately lies in the people.
Whose police? Our police, we must assert – ours to change. Whose mayor? The people’s mayor – ours to change.