By the time this issue is published, the City of St. Louis will have decided for or against Proposition P, a ballot measure asking for a sales tax raise to increase funding of the city’s public safety department.
It seems unlikely that the measure will pass, but either way, it is deeply damaging that the city would even ask.
The city of St. Louis already has some of the highest sales tax rates in the country, with taxes exceeding 12 percent for some products. Moreover, the tax hike will likely not go predominantly to pay raises. As the St. Louis Business Journal reported, the need for more public safety funding mostly comes from the city’s failure to pay into the pension system for police and firefighters the way it is supposed to.
That’s certainly not fair to the police officers and firefighters and the city should fix its mistake. It does not have the right to fix that mistake by adding another sales tax burden to the backs of St. Louis taxpayers, especially not while promising them a better police force in an unlikely exchange.
Some St. Louisans are outraged at the idea of being asked to pay for any benefit to the police department right now and it’s hard to blame them. The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department has responded to the protests against the not guilty verdict in the case of police officer Jason Stockley with, in many cases, unrestrained anger. While reporting on an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against St. Louis, I have heard testimony from protesters and bystanders who were mistreated by the police department in shocking ways. If the police department works for the public, they have spent the last two months pepper spraying, beating and mocking their employers, behavior which usually does not earn someone a raise.
Would a pay raise or a better pension plan make the St. Louis police treat protesters or black citizens any better? Not likely. The city already struggles with better and stronger police presence in richer neighborhoods, while poorer neighborhoods suffer from a lack of patrols. If more of their salary comes directly from a sales tax increase, it seems more likely to intensify this disparity.
Sales tax is already a greater burden on the poor, and those are the same people already being mistreated by the St. Louis police.
A half-cent tax increase may not seem like much, but any amount adds up. It’s truly outrageous to look at a city fundamentally failed by its government and police department and ask them to pay even a little more to keep police officers comfortable and help the city avoid financial problems brought on by its own bad decisions.
More than anything else, putting forward this proposition is phenomenally bad politics. It’s disrespectful. Mayor Lyda Krewson and other prominent St. Louis Democrats are looking citizens in the eye and saying, “We know you’re struggling, we know you have been mistreated, we know you think that we’ve failed you. We know you have been turning up on the streets and in the churches of St. Louis and calling for us to resign. But look – we just need a little more of your money to pay the people who have treated you as enemies. We’ve made bad decisions and we can’t do it ourselves.” Which is a recipe for further discontent and for being voted out of office.
Many people who criticize Proposition P have mentioned another pay raise – the raise for minimum wage workers in St. Louis City to $10 an hour, taken away shortly after its adoption by state Republicans. People feel deeply injured by this, and even more deeply injured by the thought of police officers having more money in their pockets while they have less money in theirs.
If St. Louis Democrats were smart, they’d be fighting to get that pay raise back instead of fighting to give more money to the police.
There is so much political energy in this city, so many people who care deeply about the future of their community and how it is W run. It’s time for the people in power to learn how to channel that energy and get their priorities straight.