Friday, June 14, 2013

St. Louis County Council OKs added $29.5 million in courthouse funding

In wondering last Sunday whether the inflated cost of a St. Louis County Courts project — from $100 million to nearly $130 million — was due to incompetence or deceptiveness, we overlooked another possibility.

Political influence.

Consider this timeline: On May 7, Alberici Construction, a bidder on the courthouse project, made a $10,000 campaign contribution to St. Louis County Executive Charlie A. Dooley. That same day the County Council chairman and vice chairman, Kathleen Kelly Burkett and Hazel Erby, signed pledges at the request of officials in Mr. Dooley’s office to be silent about the plan to spend extra public money on the project.

On May 22, Clayco Construction, which is teamed with Alberici on bidding for the project, made a $10,000 campaign contribution to Mayor Francis G. Slay. That same day, Mr. Slay’s campaign turned around and made a $10,000 campaign contribution to Mr. Dooley.

The evening before, on May 21, the County Council had approved a request from officials in Mr. Dooley’s office to spend an additional $29.5 million on the project, even though voters had approved spending only $100 million on the project a year earlier.

Spokesmen for Mssrs. Dooley and Slay assured us the donations had nothing to do with the request for more money for the project. That was reassuring, because we’d hate to think that the mayor — who doesn’t come up for re-election until 2017 — had opened a money laundromat.

“Obviously not,” said Mac Scott, a spokesman for Mr. Dooley.

“Not in any way,” said Richard Callow, a campaign spokesman for Mr. Slay.
So why did Mr. Slay contribute exactly the same amount his campaign received from Clayco Construction to Mr. Dooley on the very day he got Clayco’s donation?

“The mayor strongly believes that Charlie Dooley is good for St. Louis County,” Mr. Callow said.
Under Missouri’s current anemic campaign ethics laws, these contributions are legal. Committee-to-committee pass-throughs, done to fuzz up the source of money, happen all the time. Campaign money buys influence.

The other front-runners for the project — McCarthy Building Companies and KCI Construction Co. — do not show up on campaign reports as having made contributions to either Mr. Slay or Mr. Dooley this year.

The Clayco-Alberici team’s contributions do not guarantee that those companies will win the bid, either. Indeed, the companies may merely be showing their support for the enlightened policies of Mr. Slay and/or Mr. Dooley. But the timing is curious.

Garry Earls, the county’s chief operating officer, sought confidentiality from the parties involved in the attempt to approve an additional $29.5 million in special obligation bonds. That lack of transparency raises suspicions about other aspects, including the campaign contributions.

Voters had already rejected a more extensive $120 million project in 2008 to build a new St. Louis Family Court Building, refurbish the existing main courthouse and perform various other building projects.

When they were presented with a proposition in April 2012 to spend $100 million to build the Family Court building and do some long-delayed and necessary work on the main courthouse, voters approved it.

Last year’s proposition did not require a tax increase, which the earlier proposal would have. Mr. Earls said that if the county had sought $130 million for the project last year, it would have required a tax hike.

That is the key point. The same county officials who in 2010 said the budget was so stressed that they’d have to close parks and cut jobs, were reluctant to ask voters to approve higher taxes in 2012.
So they asked for less money than it now turns out is needed. Mr. Earls said it was an honest mistake; the work turned out to be more expensive than anticipated. On the other hand, allowing for inflation, it’s about the same as the 2008 project that voters turned down.

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Compliments of Post Dispatch.

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