13 min read
Posted on 04.27.07
  • 13 min read
  • Posted on 04.27.07
  • Filed under
  • State of the City

President Reed, members of the Board of Aldermen, distinguished guests. Good morning.

I am here again to report to you on the state of the City of St. Louis.

In the last twelve months, the City and its neighborhoods have seen some changes that have made our lives - in some very important ways - richer, healthier, and safer.

In the first place, there are simply more of us. The U.S. Census Bureau, which annually estimates population, has agreed that our population last July was 353,837 - an increase from the previous July and the two Julys before it.

It is not a dramatic jump - about 6,000 more St. Louisans since the last Census - but it has been a steady and welcome one.

There are many factors that have contributed to our success. City government continues to become more efficient, effective, and proactive. We are fulfilling requests for service much faster.

The national media have discovered - and are writing a whole lot more about - our unique spaces and historic places. Visitors, newcomers, and long-time residents have been talking to their friends and family about the advantages of our many close-knit neighborhoods and about the experiences of living near great attractions like City Museum, Busch Stadium, and Forest Park.

Downtown has come alive -and is now home - to thousands of new residents and dozens of new shops and restaurants. But, we have also been seeing growth in other City neighborhoods that haven't seen new investment in decades. Visitation Park; Fox Park; Benton Park West; Forest Park Southeast; the greater West End north of Delmar; and Old North St. Louis are among the neighborhoods being re-discovered as great places to live.

After decades of disinvestment, property values in the City are rising faster than just about anywhere else in the St. Louis region. According to statistics from the region's realtors, home prices in the City have gone up an average 83 percent in the last six years.

The Building Division has seen a 40 percent increase in the number of building permits we have issued over the last four years compared to the previous four years. According to the Homebuilders Association, the City has produced nearly 24,000 new and rehabilitated homes from 2001 through February of this year.

As we attract new residents, we are also working to improve the quality of homes occupied by our existing residents. Our Problem Properties Task Force has forced landlords to repair and renovate thousands of units.

Since 2001, we have worked to create or rehabilitate more than 5,600 affordable homes in the City-both rental and owner-occupied. And, the number of vacant buildings in the LRA inventory has dropped from 2,500 to 1,500.

All these numbers matter.

For example, one happy consequence of our progress is that Chief Sherman George and his firefighters have responded to 30 percent fewer fires.

And we are making progress in other areas.

The percentage of our children testing with elevated lead levels in their blood is going down. We have seen a 26 percent drop in the City's population of chronically homeless people as our plan to match housing and services to the people begins to work.

Not only are we creating more and better residential opportunities, we are living healthier lives. Mortality rates from heart disease, cancer, and stroke all are falling among City residents.

We continue to help our most vulnerable citizens. For instance, last year more than $350,000 in winter energy assistance grants were distributed to low-income, elderly and disabled City Residents through our partnership with Heat-Up St. Louis. Last summer, we partnered with Cool Down St. Louis to reduce heat-related deaths and illnesses throughout the City.

None of this growth and improvement has happened by itself - and it won't keep happening without all of us working together.

The past year presented a couple of important opportunities for us to show off our teamwork.

The City was hit by two terrible storms. Many of our residents - and hundreds of thousands of people throughout the region - lost electricity, heat, and air conditioning. Jobs, schools, stores, and daycare centers were closed for hours, days, and weeks. But, our City's quick coordinated response - in many cases aided by urgent calls for service from you aldermen - won acclaim, and even an award or two.

I want to acknowledge Chief Mokwa, Chief George, Jeff Rainford, Ron Smith, Gary Bess, Todd Waelterman, Marjorie Melton, Dave Visintainer, Fred Dunlop, Pam Walker, Bill Siedhoff, Sam Simon, and Gary Christman. The people of St. Louis owe a debt of gratitude for you, the aldermen, for what you did to assist your constituents. But, the real story was the hundreds of City employees who worked tirelessly, many of them without power at home, and all under difficult circumstances. They all deserve our thanks. I hope you will join me in a round of applause for them.

Other great teams are working together improving the airport, building a new animal house, a new ballpark village, a new multi-modal transportation center, a new gaming complex, assembling a new wireless network, and planning for the first new recreation centers in the City in decades.

Because we have worked together, the number of abused women who can now find help at our Family Justice Center has gone up. The number of kids with access to an after school program is up, while the amount of illegally dumped debris is down.

Our election board - once a source of scandal and national disgrace - has regained its professionalism. (They now finish counting the votes so fast that we can all go to bed before St. Louis county can.)

St. Louis is definitely back - and it is not even a secret anymore.

Our progress in revitalizing our City has won national notice and international acclaim in the last year. Besides enjoying the out-of-town newspaper articles, it was my great pleasure to join Planning Director Rollin Stanley to accept on the City's behalf the World Leadership Award. The award is international recognition of our progress-progress that should make each of you proud.

Working together, we have created a culture of change that empowers people - residents, city employees, businesses, and elected officials - to improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods.

It is difficult to grasp how far the City has come without remembering how far it had fallen. Between 1950 and 2000, the City's neighborhoods lost more people, more jobs, buildings, and businesses than New Orleans lost to Hurricane Katrina. Finding our way back has taken time, money, and plenty of hard work.

But, the job is not done yet. While there is much to celebrate, we have to remain focused on important challenges.

Our City - like the entire St. Louis region - has been jolted by mergers, acquisitions, and business upheaval.

In the past ten or so years, TWA, Union Pacific, May Department Stores, Pulitzer, and other St. Louis companies have been bought up, or have moved to other places, taking with them plenty of their own jobs. We have made up for the loss of those jobs by attracting new jobs to St. Louis. But, simply replacing lost jobs with new jobs isn't good enough. So, I have asked Barbara Geisman, the director of development, and her team to step up their efforts to attract good jobs to our City. That means aggressively recruiting new businesses and convincing existing businesses to expand; creating a good climate for entrepreneurs; maximizing our available incentives; and capitalizing on our strengths.

To support the campaign to retain good employers and attract new ones to the City, I want to concentrate the coming year's efforts on four fundamentals that will make City neighborhoods the places people choose to live and invest: I want to make neighborhoods safer; I want to protect our ability to provide incentives to spur private neighborhood development when necessary; I want to increase the number of chronically unemployed citizens who are prepared for the workplace; and I want to provide immediate alternatives for City children trapped in the failed St. Louis public school district.

Let's start with crime.

Crime is not the same in every neighborhood. The vast majority of our neighborhoods are safe places any time. But, some of our neighborhoods are not.

No one should be satisfied - wherever you live - until every child can play outside and walk to school without fear, until every senior citizen can live without bars on the window, and where every parent feels comfortable raising a family.

We made great progress fighting crime in 2002, 2003, and 2004. But, we went backwards in 2005 and the first half of 2006. There are a lot of reasons that happened. But, one important reason is that the federal government drastically cut funds for local law enforcement programs. That's why I am lobbying for a federal bill co-sponsored by Senators McCaskill, Clinton, and Obama - among others - that would increase funding for local law enforcement across the country to more than one billion dollars. Our share would go to reinforce the efforts of the chief and circuit attorney.

Last year, I told you I would push for authorization from the Missouri General Assembly to allow City voters to increase the sales tax to reduce crime. I did, but that bill died on the last day of the legislative session. I am pushing that legislation again this session. But, thanks to all of you and the voters, we were able to put in place a long-delayed increase in our graduated business license tax -and the proceeds of that tax are going towards enhancing the effectiveness of our law enforcement. Without waiting for either Washington or Jeff City, Chief Mokwa has added more officers to our Anti-Crime unit. He believes that a large percentage of crime is committed by a relatively small number of criminals. The Anti-Crime unit targets those criminals. To prosecute them, Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce has created a new career criminal unit in her office. And the City has opened another floor in the Downtown Justice Center to keep these criminals off the streets. We have also expanded our Problem Properties Unit and important programs like Night Watch. Although it is too early to call it a trend, these efforts have shown early results. So far this year, crime is down.

At this point in my public speeches, I usually say something harsh about the circuit judges. I have long agreed with City residents, prosecutors, and police officers who think that far too many of our problems are caused by convicted offenders who are out on probation or offenders who receive sentences shorter than their crimes would warrant. The fact is that most of the circuit judges are doing their part to fight crime - and they are doing it well. In the past year, they have adopted a new docketing system that will keep criminal defense lawyers from shopping around for a favorite judge. I think it will reduce the number of convicts who are put on probation for one crime while they are already on probation for another crime.

If we keep working together - residents, police, prosecutors, judges, and City government - we can make all our neighborhoods safer for us - and more attractive to new investment.

How do we do that?

I strongly believe that we have to be prepared to provide incentives to spur development in our more challenging neighborhoods. If the private sector was going to invest in those neighborhoods without assistance, it already would have done so. We must find ways to jump start that development.

There are three specific ideas that, working together, will do just that.

First, I have made passage of state legislation to establish a tax credit to assemble land for new development in low-income neighborhoods one of our highest legislative priorities.

Such a credit would make it much more likely that neighborhoods that cannot attract new investment on their own will see the same new life that trendier neighborhoods are already enjoying.

Second, we have set aside nearly $2-million dollars in Community Development Block Grant funds to spur neighborhood development in challenged neighborhoods in north St. Louis. Now that elections are over and all of you are firmly seated, Barb will be working with you to see that these funds are put towards uses that have long-term impact.

Third, I intend to work with you and President Reed to continue to use tax increment financing to attract private investment to those City neighborhoods where it is most needed and where TIF will work. And he and I will oppose any blanket policy that seeks to ban or restrict residential TIFs.

At this time last year, I told you that the budget would include funds for five new job placement specialists at SLATE. We did that and are on track to place more than 3,500 people in full or part-time jobs this year. With the help of the business community, we are also expanding our summer jobs program for high school kids. But, this is not nearly enough. As our City continues to grow, we are confronted with the challenge of finding better solutions to decades old problems. Unemployment and underemployment remain at unacceptably high levels. Our schools continue to do a very poor job of preparing our youth for the workforce and higher education. In short, we need to increase our efforts to improve the quality of life for many more families in our city. So today, I am pleased to announce that I have directed Rodney Crim and his staff to create workforce development action plans in the following major industries - construction, health care, information technology, advanced manufacturing, biomedical and life sciences, and retail sales.

These action plans will be part of HIRE ST. LOUIS - a new initiative to involve broad sections of our community in providing training, apprenticeship, job placement and job retention services for more residents in our City.

It is also vitally important that our residents - including minority residents - help rebuild the City. So, I will once again send you a bill to create workforce goals on City projects.

It is also important that we support businesses in the City. So, I will also send you legislation to give preference to City businesses when we do business.

Of course, the best anti-poverty program is a good education. Providing a good public education is one of the most important steps we can take to improve the future for the City of St. Louis. If all of our children don't have access to a good public education we won't be able to reduce poverty. Without good public schools, it will be impossible to turn around our challenged neighborhoods. For decades now, families - both white and African American - have left the City to put their children in good schools in the suburbs. In 1970, more than 100,000 children attended the St. Louis Public Schools. Today, that number is fewer than 33,000. Not only are fewer kids attending the St. Louis Public Schools, but enrollment in City parochial schools is falling as the cost goes up.

Fewer families are sending their kids to St. Louis County Schools as the desegregation settlement is phased out. Our City cannot continue to grow if we continue to lose families because of a shortage of quality, affordable schools.

That's why it is critically important that we fix the St. Louis Public schools. The St. Louis Public Schools did not fail overnight. They will not be fixed overnight either. But, our children cannot wait and our City cannot wait.

That's why I support quality charter schools. Charter schools are free public schools available to all children. Because they operate outside the control of the St. Louis Public Schools' bureaucracy and culture, they can be innovative, creative and entrepreneurial. Their students can be exposed to instruction that prepares them for work, college, and citizenship. Some charter schools - like the Seed Academy and St. Louis Lift for Life Academy - focus on at-risk kids and kids who have been failed by more traditional public schools.

In addition to a good education, we also must give our kids meaningful things to do after school and on weekends. Thanks to the voters and to your support for the BJC lease, we will have new resources to do that this year. In the next fiscal year, we will have an additional five hundred thousand dollars for recreation programs. The following year, that number will grow to nine hundred thousand dollars because of the BJC lease. This will ensure that more kids are safe, enriched, and active.

Some of the new programs in the coming year will include tutoring, sports, arts, music, and dance. Kids in these programs will have a chance to develop their leadership skills, do their homework, learn healthy lifestyles, and get needed social services.

Last year at this time, I told you we were working on a strategic plan to offer after school programs to every child in the City of St. Louis - regardless of income - by 2010. We have finished the plan. At my request, ARCHS and St. Louis for Kids will now take the lead to implement the plan. That will ensure that all the resources and organizations that exist for our kids work together. Coordinating these resources and services will be a priority in the coming year, so that every child has access to the resources he or she needs - delivered by providers who are skilled at these particular services. And I will work with Chairman Terry Kennedy and the African American caucus to create a program to give young men something fun and productive to do on Friday and Saturday nights.

These four areas - neighborhood safety, economic and neighborhood development, jobs training programs for the chronically unemployed, and more chances for our children to learn and grow - will be the things you and I can work on together this year. Given how far we have come together already, the hard road ahead seems only daunting, not impossible.

I want to close this morning by directing your attention to one other serious challenge in the coming year. Cities, counties, and states all across the country face large unfunded balances in their pension systems. We are no exception. While our systems are sound, they are costing us much more than we have been able to budget as contributions. By a rough calculation, combined, we are going to have to increase our payments to the systems and reduce their costs by about eighteen million dollars per year. We have a team that includes President Reed, Alderman Conway and Alderman Gregali working on a plan. We expect to bring it to you by this summer.

President Reed, aldermen, and distinguished guests - St. Louis has been a great city before and we are on the path to becoming a great city again. In the last six years, we have made great progress, some of which I have presented in this address. But, I remain convinced, that our very best days are still ahead. I look forward to working with each and every one of you.

Thank you and God bless you.