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St. Louis aldermanic panel delays city budget in workhouse-related dispute

St. Louis aldermanic panel delays city budget in workhouse-related dispute

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Workhouse, Medium Security Institution jail

The Medium Security Institution, the city jail commonly known as the workhouse, as seen on Friday, May 7, 2021 in St. Louis. One of Mayor Tishaura Jones' goals is to close the workhouse.

Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS — An aldermanic panel on Thursday delayed action on the proposed city budget until Mayor Tishaura O. Jones recommends $5.7 million in cuts to offset lost revenue due to her decision to stop housing federal prisoners.

The move came amid ongoing friction between some members and Jones over the mayor’s plan to close the city’s medium-security jail on Hall Street, also known as the workhouse, by the end of the month.

To free up space at the city’s main jail downtown for remaining workhouse inmates, the city has stopped accepting federal detainees there.

The Ways and Means Committee’s budget holdup was requested by Aldermanic President Lewis Reed, who said the end of the federal contract would put the budget out of balance for the fiscal year beginning next month.

“Right now, there’s a $5.7 million hole in the budget,” Reed said at a teleconference meeting of the committee. “I don’t think (aldermen) should be responsible for figuring out what to cut.”

Jones’ spokesman, Nick Dunne, said aldermen should send the $1.15 billion budget back to the city Board of Estimate and Apportionment, the city’s top fiscal body, for cuts and additions. “We are ready to balance the budget without unnecessary cuts,” Dunne said without specifying how.

Last week, Jones’ interim public safety director, Dan Isom, said he hoped some of the shortfall could be dealt with by reductions in food and medical costs due to the city holding fewer prisoners overall.A week ago the shortfall was estimated at $6.7 million but Budget Director Paul Payne lowered it to account for $1 million or so in expected federal jail payments that have yet to come in.

In addition to the flap over the money, some committee members already were concerned that closing the workhouse as quickly as Jones wants would result in too many inmates at the downtown jail and other problems.

“I’ve made clear before that I’m not going to vote on a budget that overcrowds a prison,” said Alderman Joe Vaccaro, 23rd Ward.

Reed also has been critical of moving too fast; his spokesman, Mary Goodman, said Thursday that the Jones administration has yet to submit a responsible plan.

The mayor, who took office April 20, promised during her successful campaign that she would close the facility in her first 100 days, agreeing with activist groups who say detainees there have been subject to substandard conditions.

Jones after touring the facility a few days after taking office doubled down on her complaints, saying detainees told her about rodent and cockroach infestation, inedible food and other problems. The complex’s defenders say it has been upgraded in recent years.

The three-person estimate board voted to send the proposed budget to aldermen on April 29. Jones joined with Comptroller Darlene Green to outvote Reed, who opposed the measure.

The ways and means panel, which finished its budget hearings Wednesday, had been expected on Thursday to begin considering proposed amendments by members.

That didn’t happen following Reed’s request for a delay. The city charter requires the budget to be passed by the end of the month. Typically the estimate board and Board of Aldermen negotiate differences before a final version is approved.

Reed and some committee members also are at odds with the mayor on her proposal to cut $4 million for 98 long-vacant police officer positions and use it on affordable housing, homeless services and other programs. That’s part of the budget endorsed by the estimate board and the reason Reed said he voted against it.

Meanwhile, the carpenters union, which represents many city corrections employees, has called the June 30 timetable for closing the workhouse “unnecessary and unwise” because the downtown jail hasn’t been fully repaired since damage caused in inmate disturbances earlier this year.

In a letter Wednesday to Vaccaro that also was sent to other aldermen and administration officials, the union said the ongoing transfer of workhouse detainees to “a building not prepared to house them … is creating an unsafe environment.’”

Dunne, Jones’ spokesman, said the health and safety of the corrections staff is a top priority in the move and that consolidating the two jails will result in more staff at the downtown facility, making it safer and more manageable. He said more than $7 million in repairs and upgrades are underway.

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