County voters say they were misled, urge elected officials to spend Prop P money on police as promised

Sixty-three percent of St. Louis County voters voted in favor of Proposition P this April, a half-cent sales tax that’s expected to generate $80 million a year for public safety.

County Executive Steve Stenger and County Police Chief Jon Belmar backed the issue, saying it would bolster the police department and resources where they have been sorely needed.

Belmar had asked the county council for the past three years for an additional 120 officers to strengthen the county’s 800-officer police force.

He said those additional officers would allow for two-person cars responding to 911 calls, increased safety the officers, and proactive enforcement.

Belmar also pointed to an increase in aggravated assault crimes, more cyber crimes, and an uptick in homicides in recent years.

However, now that some municipalities are seeing funds be redirected to other avenues, such as road work, residents are saying that’s not what they voted for.

Several turned out to challenge elected officials on the matter and push for transparency in the process of spending those funds.

Ben Senturia of University City was among them.

“County Executive Stenger urges all county officials to spend Proposition P tax funds as they were intended; to do otherwise would violate the law as well as the trust of county residents, who voted overwhelmingly to pass this proposition,” Senturia told the council. “That doesn’t help. In fact, the law and the source of its wording is the source of the problem. If we wanted to keep the trust of county residents, so they’d be willing to support future funding proposals, then the key question is: What did the electorate understand and intend when they voted for Proposition P? To that end, the challenge for elected officials of the county and municipalities, is to ask the voters in each jurisdiction what they intended in voting for police and public safety, and then develop a plan consistent with that intent, and to be transparent in that process.”

Crestwood resident Jennifer Byrd called it “stool-sample legislation, — you have to pass it to see what’s in it.”

“I guess I’m one of those people that don’t trust my government,” she told the council, “and given the history, it looks like I’m on the right track.

Byrd said policy makers are stretching the definition of public safety when it comes to using these funds.

“I take issue with that,” she said. “It’s a shame that things worked out the way that they did and my initial distrust with the measure was that the county stood to gain more than five times than what was stated as needed for (police) raises and updated equipment and so on and so forth. It looks like another big scoop out of the trough — out of my trough and our trough — because the people who are hurt worst and first in any sales tax situation are anyone on a fixed income, the elderly, the disabled, and the poor.”

She alluded to the future possibility of a city-county merger, and fears that once again, voters will not be privy to the full scope of the deal.

“I won’t sign a blank mortgage,” she said. 

In April, Chief Belmar said pay raises for officers would also aid in retention.

“It’s probably typical for us to lose an officer a week over a year period, and that’s not alarming considering the number of police officers we have,” he said. “However, what we’ve noticed recently is that we’re getting into that range where we’re losing 1.5 or 1.6 officers a week, and we have to pay attention to those numbers.”

While it is a tax, he said, it is an investment.

“If I’m a taxpayer, the first thing I want to look at is, ‘What will Prop P do for me? I want to know that I will have more policemen on the street.’”

Belmar also said a strong police force leads to safer communities, which lends to a vibrant economy.

Earlier in the week, residents voiced their concerns about how the money was being spent at a Chesterfield City work session. One of those speaking out against using Prop P funds for anything other than public safety was Elizabeth Snyder, widow of County Police Officer Blake Snyder, who was killed on duty after being shot in South St. Louis County last October.

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