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Towards a Humane Budget Process

For the last several years, the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression has been facilitating a community engagement campaign on “Re-envisioning Public Safety.” In the town halls across the city, citizens were asked to think about what they would do with the portion of the city revenue we spend on an ineffective and racist arrest-and-incarceration model the city currently operates. I’m positive that if some of them had known about the recent public hearing on the city budget, they would’ve been there to give the Ways and Means Committee some solid suggestions about how to spend their hard-earned tax dollars.

Depending on how you cut it, the city spends 53-60 percent of its general revenue on police, courts, jails and other related agencies and programs. The goals of the campaign were to take our public consciousness past crime-fighting (reactive) to addressing the root causes of crime (proactive and preventive). Re-envisioning public safety has now morphed into reinvesting in public safety.

The knee-jerk response to crime in our city is to shout, “More police!” That is not the only answer to our crime problems, and our current situation is a testament to this fact. According to the Missouri attorney general’s latest racial profiling data, black folks are paying to be pulled over and searched in record numbers with very little return—meaning the amount of contraband doesn’t even come close to the number of police stops. And violent crimes continue.

A new city budget goes into effect on July 1. At a time when we keep hearing that money is tight, we have made few changes in the way that we approach the budget. The Board of Aldermen and the Board of Estimate and Apportionment need to embark upon a new and creative budget process that takes into consideration the well-being of all citizens, not just the few.

We should not be pretending all is well in St. Louis for everyone. It is not. There are neighborhoods which look like one of North Korea’s nukes hit them. Neighborhoods where they are food deserts, minimal health services and sub-standard housing. Then there are neighborhoods that have more than what they need. The inequality is mind-blowing.

Some of us believe the city should take a serious look at how and where to move money. These are places where revenues like hidden or untapped like the police forfeiture funds, like TIFs and other giveaways to corporations and developers, uncollected business taxes, etc. That asset forfeiture fund needs to be more than the police department’s slush fund.

Across the nation, citizens are demanding more input and control over their city’s budget. The concept of participatory budgeting is taking root and spreading. It’s more than just putting the budget on a website. It’s rethinking our priorities and making sure the money follows.

St. Louis needs to have a collective, comprehensive budget process that is humane, inclusive and futuristic. Let’s have a thoughtful but bodacious process that brings out the best in our city. A process that leads to funding basic human needs like jobs with livable wages, mental health services, adequate housing and community recreation.

The city budget is a starting place to make meaningful changes in our lives and the futures of our children. The knee-jerk response to problems is ineffectual. Working people keep getting saddled for the expensive failures of city decision-makers. The budget message is short and sweet: We have the means, let’s find the ways.

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