We Can Use the Proposed Use Tax Increase to Re-Imagine Public Safety

This is the final post in a series on the true cost of putting proceeds from the proposed use tax increase towards building an MLS stadium instead of funds for public services. It does not advocate for or against the passage of the increased sales tax proposition.

The following was written in collaboration with the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression & St. Louis City resident and activist Christiane Assefa.

On April 4, St. Louis voters will decide between two choices on Proposition 2 – put $4 million dollars a year into a soccer stadium, or invest that money for the greater well-being of the hard-pressed residents of the city.

The MLS (Major League Soccer) stadium would be partially financed by money from Saint Louis City itself, largely drawing from a “use tax” fund.  This use tax would be increased through the passage of proposition 1, whose increased sales tax would trigger an automatic use tax increase. This use tax is paid by Missouri businesses who buy more than $2,000 worth of materials from out-of-state companies — individual taxpayers do not have to pay the use tax. Normally, the use tax goes to fund public services such as affordable housing, public safety, public health, and neighborhood stabilization. Proposition 2 asks if voters want to redirect this increased use tax revenue to help pay for the new soccer stadium, instead of sending it to the funds that already exist: affordable housing, public safety and public health.

The St. Louis Football Club ownership group and pro-stadium alderpersons say that the stadium won’t cost St. Louisans a dime, and that it will pay back all city money over a 30 year period. Others have already disputed this claim, but assuming it were true, we need to look at alternate uses for that money.

Residents of St. Louis City have long known that our neighborhoods are divided by race and class, creating outcomes in health, education and opportunity that are vastly different depending on your zip code. The For the Sake of All study and Ferguson Commision report simply affirmed what the workers of this city have proclaimed since Percy Green scaled the Arch: Without access to quality jobs, education, housing, and healthcare we are left with the criminalization of those most marginalized in our community; a system dependent on an underpaid, undereducated workforce; and a chronically underfunded city.

The potential public money spent on the MLS stadium is evidence of institutional and cultural disregard for those who are suffering in Saint Louis. Those who wouldn’t be able to find the time or money for the entertainment of a soccer game. Those who inhabit the neglected neighborhoods of the 22nd ward. Those who are not paid a living wage and fall in the healthcare coverage gap. Those who attend our public schools and share study materials in overcrowded classrooms. Those who happen to be the majority of this city.

There are untold ways to invest the $4 million a year increase raised by the use tax that don’t include stadium funding — investments that would serve us well on two fronts. First, they could address real, immediate human needs. Second, they could lift up the city as whole, fostering an economy that supports local businesses and access to quality housing.

Let’s look at where this money could go, based on the current use tax guidelines, if the stadium proposal is rejected — public health, housing, and public safety funds. One possibility is that the $4 million per year in potential new revenue could go towards addressing the current opioid epidemic, which killed 33,000 people nationwide in 2015 and is driving an increase in St. Louis crime. Another possibility is that more dollars to go toward fully funding the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, we could also help the homeless off the streets and provide springboards for productive lives.

What could we do with more money for public safety? Any tax increase should not be used to support predatory policing practices that financially exploit the working poor for the interests of the powerful elite. Some would choose to increase spending for more cops and street camera surveillance, despite the fact that Saint Louis already spends 52% of our general fund budget on arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating. However, St. Louis already ranks eighth in the nation for the number of police officers per 10,000 residents. More cops or cameras only add to an arrest-and-incarcerate model that has given us bulging prisons, decimated communities, and broken lives.  Additionally, studies show that spending on expensive cameras and fiber optics have almost no effect on violent crime.

In the age of Trump and Bannon, working class people of color are facing increased criminalization and surveillance at the hands of local police forces, ICE, and emboldened vigilantes. Putting potential use tax revenue towards increased funding of discredited policing practices would only heighten the threat of violence against marginalized communities.

If we are to finally reject this arrest-and-incarcerate model, we must re-envision public safety. Programs such as Cure Violence show that crime rates fall when resources are spent on mental health, interventions such as teaching conflict resolution, jobs skills training, youth mentoring, strategies that address access to quality education and re-entry programs for prisoners that lead to reduced recidivism rates. Directing use tax revenue towards these sorts of programs, rather than policing, would be an investment in a vision of holistic public safety that builds communities and increases overall well-being.
The money generated from the use tax increase could be invested into serving the basic human needs of Saint Louis city residents rather than another sports stadium. We must ask: why is it that our elected officials are able to find creative strategies to maximize the profits/pockets of the wealthy owners of MLS teams but can’t figure out how to help homeless people off of the streets? The condition of our community is not accidental nor is it misfortune, and it is up to us to find the solutions and make the demand for a better world.

The Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression (CAPCR) is a St. Louis organization whose mission for the past 34 years has been to 1) end police crimes and abuse; 2) end the criminalization of a generation; and 3) to expose the prison industrial complex. Christiane Assefa is an organizer, writer, and activist whose work integrates black liberation, black feminism, and immigrant and refugee rights, as well as other causes.

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