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West County group seeks input on use of Prop P money

By: Jim Merkel

The comment period at the July 11 meeting of the St. Louis County Council became a time for those worried that the county, and area municipalities, may waste a new half-cent sales tax for public safety.

Two members of the West County Community Action Network said they were concerned that the definitions of “public safety” in the Proposition P ballot measure approved earlier this year are too vague. They said they’d like the council and county municipalities to seek comment from as many groups as possible on the best way to cut crime.

One of those speaking, James Moore, of Chesterfield, said County Police Chief Jon Belmar has done a good job of identifying possible uses of the money. But added, “I do not believe that the council nor the citizens should be relying upon one source of ideas or one set of definitions of how those funds should be used over the next five years, which is what his proposal essentially does.”

In an email sent after the meeting, St. Louis County Police Spokesman Ben Granda said the county police department will use the Prop P money as it was intended, for public safety. He emphasized that he only speaks on behalf of the county police department.

“Chief Jon Belmar has outlined very specific needs that can be addressed with very specific amounts of money over the span of the next five years,” Granda said. “The progress made on each of the priorities he has identified will be transparent, as our organization continues to grow and adapt to the ever-changing needs of St. Louis County.”

Granda added that anytime citizens have suggestions, they should contact the county department.

Starting salaries for St. Louis County Police officers will increase by 8 percent, and the county police department will add 110 officers, following the passage in April of a countywide half-cent sales tax boost for public safety.

It’s one of a number of improvements county officials have announced following the victory of Prop P. Estimates made before the election were that the county police would receive $46 million and individual municipal departments a total of $34 million per year.

In his statement,  Moore said the groups wanted the county to start a process to define “appropriate use” of the money for public safety. This should come not only from police and public safety officials but from human service providers, he said. There should be public meetings and surveys to get comments, he added.

Moore said he represented the Metropolitan Congregations United as well as the West County Community Action Network. He expressed concern that some municipalities are thinking about replacing their current budget money for police with Prop P money and shifting the money previously used for police to other purposes.

“We think that violates the public trust, we think it is contrary to the intention of the voters on this issue and, therefore, separate line item budgets will prevent that abuse,” Moore said.

West County Community Action Network member Dina Hamersen said the new tax was long overdue and that she was happy there will be an increase in officer salaries. However, the Wildwood resident said, “I am concerned that the proposed spending plan does not address an increase in the hiring of diverse candidates that are more representative of the communities that the police officers serve.” She also said she wanted to make sure that the funds be used to implement community policing strategies and that more funds should be used for training.

On the diversity issue, Granda said the department draws quality candidates from all races, cultures and walks of life, “a fact evidenced by looking at our police force or command staff.” He said community policing is a high priority for the county department and that officers and commanders routinely organize and attend neighborhood meetings to get citizen comment. He also said the department spends a significant amount of time and resources on training.

Det. Joseph Patterson, president of the St. Louis County Police Association, promised his group would speak up if the money isn’t used correctly.

“The St. Louis County Police Association has publicly pledged to spotlight any elected or appointed municipal official who attempts to steal these funds from their police officers,” Patterson said.

Locally, one West County municipality, Wildwood, is taking steps to ensure that the money goes for new initiatives.

“Our city council has taken the position that the Proposition P funds need to be used for law enforcement and public safety,” said City Administrator Ryan Thomas.

Wildwood, which pays the county for police services, is receiving $1.8 million from Prop P.  The city council is talking about adding new county police officers, and has approved the addition of an officer to work nights at city hall beginning Aug. 1. Wildwood has not added any new officers in the last eight years. The city also wants to have supervisors at the Wildwood Precinct 24 hours a day. Currently, when there are no supervisors in Wildwood, those in Valley Park fill in.

The Wildwood council is discussing adding surveillance cameras and call boxes at parks and city hall, as well as funding safety improvements at intersections with high crash rates, Thomas said. In the beginning, more money would be spent on public safety work that is not directly connected with police, as revenues rise, more money would go for police, he said.

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