Naturally, the City of St. Louis leaders feel pressured by a $45 million gap in the operating budget.

But they – or, at least, the black aldermen – don’t want to feel pushed around.

Eleven black aldermen signed a document saying that Ways & Means Committee Chairman Stephen Conway was rushing their decisions regarding the City’s budget for fiscal year 2011.

On Jan. 26, Conway had presented a four-page list of budget cuts, totaling $59 million, to the Board of Aldermen. Conway said they had three days to “rank” the budget cuts from “1 to 5” in degree of agreement with making the cut.

The list came from Barbara Geisman, deputy mayor of development, who works closely with Mayor Francis G. Slay.

In the committee meeting, Conway said they had a three-minute time limit per alderman and per section to ask Geisman questions.

That didn’t sit well with the black aldermen on the committee.

On Jan. 29, the African American Aldermanic Caucus – including Aldermen Terry Kennedy, Charles Q. Troupe, Freeman Bosely Sr., Samuel Moore, Dionne Flowers, April Ford Griffin, Marlene E. Davis, Antonio D. French, Jeffrey L. Boyd, Frank Williamson, Gregory J. Carter and Kacie Starr Triplett – sent a letter to Conway expressing concerns.

“We believe that it is wrong to balance the budget on the backs of the city’s most vulnerable citizens – its poor, its very young and its very old,” the letter states.

The letter asked that the committee perform a thorough analysis of every department’s budget to make sure that “all waste is eliminated.”

It also asked to hold committee meetings about the budget cuts in the evening when the public could attend. Committee meetings are typically held during the workday.

And the black caucus asked to “meet at least three more times before any ‘ranking’ of budget cuts were determined.”

Conway told The American he did not respond to the black caucus’ letter.

“The letter doesn’t suggest anything that we can do,” Conway said. “Politicians are scared to make decisions. No one wants to be responsible. So let’s just basically hang this on the mayor, type of thing. And that’s the mayor’s job. He’s the leader of the ship, so you can hang it on him.”

6th Ward Alderwoman Kacie Starr Triplett said that it would be “extremely politically short-sighted” for Conway not to acknowledge the caucus’ letter.

“Collectively, the African-American members on the Ways & Means Committee represent over 91,000 city residents,” Starr Triplett said. “Many of these residents will be negatively impacted by the proposed budget cuts.”

However, she said Conway did agree to hold the next budget meeting at City Hall on Wednesday, Feb. 10 at 6:30 p.m., when more of the public could attend.

Green and Reed

At the Feb. 2 Ways & Means Committee meeting, Comptroller Darlene Green and President of the Board of Aldermen Lewis Reed gave starkly different presentations.

Green told the committee exactly what she thought, and Reed held back.

“I can’t tell you anything that you don’t already know,” Reed said.

Reed was not ready to share his judgment, he said, because he felt that he didn’t have all the data from Budget Director Paul Payne.

Reed did encourage the aldermen to look at a study on staffing costs by the PFM Group. He also talked about a national pension forum he had attended.

“When we stood up and said that we are required to fund our pension systems at a higher percent, both of the experts there looked at us like we were crazy,” Reed said of the forum.

“They had never heard of such a thing. There needs to be a review of our requirements to fund the system at 100 percent.”

Starr Triplett said that Comptroller Darlene Green took a strong leadership role in going on the record publicly with where she stands on the proposed budget cuts. Green told the committee she does not agree with:

· Eliminating 21 neighborhood stabilization officers – $1,500,000.

· Eliminating cable TV – $1,164,000

· Reallocating the crime prevention fund to public safety – $1,000,000

· Cost allocation to special funds and grants – $500,000

· Eliminating three capital improvement liaisons – $150,000

· Merging the circuit clerk and court – unknown savings

Green said that crime prevention funds need to go to programs that do work in the communities, and that eliminating the capital improvement liaisons and neighborhood stabilization officers would break communication between the community and legislators.

‘Nobody’s happy’

Alderman Charles Q. Troupe said, “Why does everybody say that public safety is not on the table?”

Alderwoman Marlene Davis pulled out a report of budget cuts in cities, including Denver, Dallas, San Francisco, and Columbia, Mo.

“I know it’s popular to say you can’t cut public safety, but as I looked at a list of distressed cities across the country, they’ve had a different range of cuts that do also include public safety,” Davis said.

“Making sure we’re safe doesn’t mean you can’t cut.”

Davis also suggested cutting back to 37-hour work weeks, which enraged Alderman Alfred Wessels Jr.

When the aldermen tried to cut their own salaries by two percent, “look how much squawking there was,” Wessels said.

“We can’t take two percent even from our salaries, but one of us can suggest a 6.5 percent pay decrease for employees,” Wessels said. “That’s unacceptable, and I think we need to start thinking realistically.”

Davis replied, “I made the suggestion because I would rather see employees with a 37-hour week than cutting employees. I know how hard it is to find a new job, there are no new jobs. If you want to keep everyone employed, you have to make hard decisions.”

“It’s ridiculous,” Wessels said.

Wessels’ frustration backs up a point Conway made in justifying his decision to ignore the letter sent to him by the black caucus.

“Whatever the caucus thinks is important to them, that’s fine. They have the right to voice it,” Conway told The American.

“But what they don’t realize is that all the aldermen are exactly the same. Nobody’s happy in the City of St. Louis.”

The next Ways & Means Committee meeting to discuss the City’s budget cuts will be at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, February 10 in City Hall's Kennedy Hearing Room, Room 208.

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