We should not increase taxes on the poor to pay police more

Originally posted in the St. Louis American

We all want St. Louis to be a safer place to live. We all want city employees – including police officers – to be treated fairly and paid well. And we all want taxes to be as low as possible. Our public policies should reflect these agreements, and many do.

There are at least two ways of trying to improve public safety. One is by continuing to increase funding for existing police officers, hiring more officers, and just hoping that crime goes down. We’ve tried that before. Police officers have received raise after raise, and yet we still have one of the highest crime rates in the country.

The other way, the approach I prefer, is by investing in programs that address the underlying causes of crime – poverty, lack of educational opportunities, unemployment.

 This battle of ideas between giving more money to police versus investing in long-term solutions faces a key test on November 7, when St. Louis residents will vote on the second sales tax increase of the year. Proposition P is a 0.5 percent sales tax that will generate about $23 million per year. The Krewson Administration has committed most of that money to increasing police officer salaries and hiring more police officers.

St. Louis is already the 7th-highest-policed city in the country, and we already spend 54 percent of our budget on policing. Simply increasing pay for police officers will not make our neighborhoods, playgrounds, and schools safer. What it will do is further entrench our city in an outdated “arrest and incarcerate” view of public safety.

If Proposition P passes, St. Louis will have the third-highest sales tax in the country. And it would place the greatest burden on our lowest-income neighbors. People under the poverty line already pay over 5 percent of their incomes in sales taxes, and now we’re asking them to pay even more.

Now is not the time for more police; now is the time for a new public safety strategy.

Our new strategy should link increased police pay to reforms. There’s nothing inherently wrong with paying police officers more as long as it’s done thoughtfully and carefully. That’s why I support police salary increases if the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department adopts the recommendations of the Ferguson Commission, President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and other community policing standards.

If we are to allocate any new money to policing, it must be used to incentivize the reforms that we want to see within the department, not just to prop up the status quo.

And our new public safety strategy should better fund programs that address the root causes of crime. The city continues to underfund things like the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and has cut nearly $1 million from our Health Department. We cannot expect our crime rates to go down if funding for programs that prevent crime go down.

Proposition P will do little to improve public safety and will place the highest tax burden on our lowest-income residents, and is just not a good deal for taxpayers.

The good news is that Proposition P is not our only option. To offer the city an alternative, I have introduced Board Bill 117. Instead of a tax that places the greatest burden on the poor, Board Bill 117 would be a 0.5 percent payroll tax paid by big businesses. Unlike our sales taxes, our payroll tax rank amongst the lowest in the country, and has not been raised since it was first implemented in 1990. Big business contributed $325,000 to the “Yes on P campaign” because an increased sales tax doesn’t impact them as much as it does people under the poverty line, and it’s about time that we ask the business community to step up and pay their fair share.

A payroll tax would also generate $15 million more per year than Proposition P. That increased revenue could be used to restore funding to our Health Department, create a Department of Mental Health, increase funding for the Prison to Prosperity program, allow the city to create more homeless shelter space, restore funding to the Health Care Trust Fund and Affordable Housing Trust Fund, transition the workhouse into a rehabilitation facility, and fund more recreation programs.

In sum, it would fund real crime prevention programs.

We have a choice on November 7 between these two visions of public safety. Voting yes on Proposition P would increase taxes on the poor to pay police more. Voting no would send the issue back to City Hall so that a fair solution that addresses more of the underlying causes of crime could be considered.

It’s a choice between a short-term solution that won’t solve anything and a longer-term plan that could make a real difference in our city’s future. Vote no on Proposition P.

Megan Ellyia Green is 15th Ward alderwoman in St. Louis.