Let’s start with the good news.
The bill to close the Workhouse, or the Medium Security Institution, unanimously passed out of the aldermanic Public Safety Committee on Tuesday, July 7. For advocates who have been working tirelessly on the Close the Workhouse campaign for two years, this was a huge moment. Board Bill 92 includes language from the Close the Workhouse campaign’s plan, along with most of advocates’ suggested amendments. The bill will also create two funds of $7.6 million to address neighborhood safety and re-entry programs.
“If we use this money in a more effective and efficient manner, I think we will see a safer and better city,” President of the Board of Aldermen Lewis Reed told the committee. “And I think we’ll see the people who have formerly been detained coming out and leading productive lives.”
If all goes smoothly, the bill could pass this month and the jail could close by the end of the year.
Here’s the big “but.”
The bill was introduced by Reed on Monday, June 29. Both the day and the man are important here. Reed publicly announced the bill following a seven-hour Board of Aldermen meeting regarding Reed’s bill to speed up the process of privatizing St. Louis-Lambert International Airport. Reed has been taking some heat for doing Republican billionaire Rex Sinquefield’s bidding on leasing operations of the airport, leading some to suspect that the Close the Workhouse bill is just a cover.
In fact, on Friday, June 26, a coalition of alderpeople introduced an amendment to the budget to Close The Workhouse, and they almost won.
“We had the votes,” Alderwoman Megan Ellyia Green (D-Ward 15) wrote in a column for The American. “Board President Lewis Reed knew that we had the votes. Over three years of grassroots organizing was about to pay off.”
If Reed really cared about closing the Workhouse, the coalition of aldermen say, he would have supported this effort. Instead, he made a move to squash it. He instructed the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee to put the budget bill on the informal calendar — “in spite of hours of fear-mongering debate that if we didn't pass a budget it would revert to the initial proposed budget, thus taking away ward capital,” Green said.
There are less than 100 inmates at the Workhouse and 214 vacancies in the city’s other jail, the St. Louis Justice Center. There’s $8 million allocated toward the Workhouse in this year’s budget (which will be reallocated through Board Bill 93 if Reed’s bill passes).
So, on Monday, aldermen were supposed to get back to passing the budget — and fighting for the Workhouse amendment — during a special meeting. But that’s not what happened.
“Our City Charter says (the budget) must be passed by July 1,” Green wrote. “Instead, the city budget was left on the informal calendar, and it became abundantly clear that this seven-hour special session was for special interests.”
Instead, Reed wanted to talk about Board Bill 71, which puts a measure on the November 3 ballot that would require that the City of St. Louis to enter into a speedy agreement to privatize Lambert Airport operations soon after voters approve it.
The aldermanic session ends on Friday, July 10. In order to get the Close the Workhouse bill done, Reed would have to call special sessions. And in those meetings, he would be able to also do other city business – for example, make moves on the airport privatization bill.
So, what’s wrong with Reed’s airport bill? People get to vote on what happens to the airport, right?
There are a lot of problems, but here’s a big one. Board Bill 71 outlines that city leaders will have 30 days to negotiate and approve a contract to privatize airport operations.
“As my colleague Alderman Bret Narayan (D-Ward-24) so masterfully brought up, it can take us from six months to a year to get a contract to do a traffic study for speed humps (a continual frustration of mine),” Green wrote. “Having only 30 days to negotiate and approve a contract to privatize operation of our largest city asset is asinine.”
Also, the public would not get to weigh in on the contract before it went to a public vote, which is different than the bills that Green and Alderwoman Cara Spencer (D-Ward 20) have introduced.
“Reed’s bill asks for a blank check,” Spencer said.
The EYE reached out to Reed’s office and has not yet received a response.
On July 7, Spencer announced publicly that she believes she found another big problem with Reed’s bill— at least for the city’s wallet.
Sinquefield is currently backing an initiative petition to privatize airport operations. According to several former city counselors, led by Jim Wilson, the petition would require two separate votes on two separate ballots to be ratified by city voters, Spencer stated in a press release. A vote in November would need only 50% to pass. If approved, the actual proposed charter amendment would go to a vote at the next election, in March 2021. The second vote would require at least 60% approval.
But Reed’s bill (which is almost identical to Sinquefield’s ballot language) would only require the November vote with at least 60% approval to pass. It also requires the city to lease the airport to private interests by April 2021. Why is this important?
Because if a deal isn’t inked by June 2021, then Sinquefield would lose about $45 million that city taxpayers would owe him, per the consulting agreement to explore privatizing airport operations first initiated by then-Mayor Francis G. Slay soon before he stepped down as mayor – and stepped into a private law practice that soon added to its portfolio consulting on leasing airport operations. Slay’s former campaign manager and chief of staff Jeff Rainford is also in the airport leasing consulting scrum. Sinquefield was the single largest campaign donor to Slay and Rainford. The EYE was predicated on the notion that “what it is it ain’t,” but in this case, what it is it pretty much is.
Here was the deal. The city ended its consulting contract with the Sinquefield-backed Grow Missouri in January (Mayor Lyda Krewson got cold feet, for reasons that remain unexplained), but the fine print of the deal stated that if a lease deal gets cut before June 2021, Sinquefield would still get paid. Through the petition process, the deal wouldn’t be done in time for Sinquefield to recoup his investment in the airport speculation. Reed’s bill would require that it be done by April, in time for Sinquefield to recoup.
“This is nothing more than legislation to line the pockets of a billionaire,” Spencer said, with the backing of several former city counselors.
Wilson was city counselor for 11 years and served a total of 29 years in the office. (Wilson served under Mayor Vince Schoemehl, who was last seen in the EYE trying to recruit Black influentials to Spencer’s campaign for mayor. Wilson also has joined with Alderman Jeffrey Boyd in suing to wrest control of parking operations from Treasurer Tishaura O. Jones.) Others agreeing with Wilson on the charter amendment process were Tom Ray, who also served as city counselor and worked in the office for 30 years, and Ed Hanlon, a former deputy city counselor who worked 28 years in the office. (Ray is now of counsel at Armstrong Teasdale, where his staff bio states he has put together more than 200 TIF deals with the City of St. Louis.)
Spencer also believes that Reed’s Workhouse bill could be just a cover for moving forward an airport bill that gets Sinquefield paid.
“After years of being opposed, now Lewis Reed and several South Side aldermen are hellbent on closing the Workhouse,” Spencer said. “If this doesn’t raise a red flag, then I don’t know what does.”