ST. LOUIS • When top city officials voted to restore proposed cuts to the city's neighborhood stabilization team, members of the public attending their meeting suggested they trim roughly 1 percent from the city’s large public safety budget to recoup the costs.
Public safety is by far the biggest chunk of St. Louis' spending plan, encompassing the police and fire departments, corrections, and the city's building division: roughly $290 million in total spending.
But Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards wants aldermen to look elsewhere.
"There is no way it can be paid under the umbrella of the various public safety divisions," he said on Wednesday, adding that any additional reductions would lead to deficit spending.
City officials are in the process of crafting St. Louis' $1.1 billion budget for fiscal 2019. Among the cuts to fill a roughly $10 million shortfall in the current draft includes slashing 12 of the city’s neighborhood stabilization officers, plus a supervisor.
NSOs act as liaisons between St. Louis residents and the officials, city agencies and police officers who serve them. The neighborhood officers generally give residents a person to address complaints to in each ward, in addition to the ward alderman.
In recent weeks, residents as well as members of the Board of Aldermen have lauded the work of these officers, who are often the first point of contact between St. Louisans and their city government.
Edwards acknowledged that many of those officers in his department do fantastic work. But he argues that the entire neighborhood stabilization office needs re-purposing. Without delving into specific problems, Edwards said it's difficult to keep track of what officers are doing in their respective wards.
Edwards called for more clearly defined responsibilities, set schedules and a stronger system to make sure officers can account for the hours they've worked.
"Any given time a day, we should know where folk ought to be and what they're doing," he told members of the Board of Aldermen's Ways and Means Committee. "I think we have to do something different. This is just no longer sustainable, in terms of responsibility, in terms how I think businesses and offices ought to be run so we are transparent and we are accountable."
The initial proposed cuts to the NSOs were part of such a reorganization, to "improve efficiencies and more closely align the NS officers with the six police districts in the city."
Several members of the committee, which is conducting hearings on the city budget, agreed that exploring a restructuring would be appropriate. Chairman Frank Williamson said perhaps officers should begin cycling through different wards rather than being assigned to a specific area.
"We rotate building inspectors. We rotate police officers. NSOs shouldn't be any different," said Williamson, who represents the 26th Ward. "They would get to know the city, not just a neighborhood. You get hung up in a neighborhood, you get hung up on these personalities."
Alderman Beth Murphy, 13th Ward, suggested that the city should explore new responsibilities for the officers, such as writing tickets for smaller violations like expired license plates. Alderman Marlene Davis, 19th Ward, said it should be made more clear that NSOs aren't meant to be assistants or right hands to St. Louis aldermen, but instead servants to the community.
But Edwards acknowledged that his plans may rankle St. Louis aldermen.
"That probably will not sit well with a lot of folk. Because some aldermen may feel as if they are negatively impacted," he said. "And that's fine. For 25 years, 50 percent of everybody I ever dealt with walked out my courtroom unhappy. I respect that. I don't get any joy out of that. But we've been asked to do a job. We've been asked to do it well. And we've been asked to take responsibility.
"If you ask me to take the responsibility, I sure hope to have the support of the folk on this board," Edwards said.
The Ways and Means Committee took no action on Wednesday to address the proposed cuts to NSOs. Because they have been restored by a unanimous vote from Mayor Lyda Krewson, Aldermanic President Lewis Reed and Comptroller Darlene Green, aldermen will have to find the $800,000 in cuts elsewhere in the budget before the July 1 deadline.