South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

Ethics panel questions Stenger

County Executive Steve Stenger, second from left, listens to Rep. Bob Burns, D-Affton, address the council last year, left to right: 5th District Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, Chairman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, 1st District Councilwoman Hazel Erby and 4th District Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray, D-Black Jack. Photo by Gloria Lloyd.

By Gloria Lloyd
News Editor

The County Council’s Ethics Committee is asking County Executive Steve Stenger to answer questions on his claims about the benefits of the $69 million lease for a new North County Government Center in the former Northwest Plaza mall.

The chair of the newly formed committee, 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, sent Stenger a series of 17 questions April 26 that the other two members approved earlier that same day in a meeting that lasted little more than a minute.

Among the questions, the council asked whether Stenger’s campaign contributions from the owners of Northwest Plaza, brothers Robert and David Glarner, were “quid pro quo” for the lease and what would happen if the council vacated the lease due to what the council insinuates was “pay to play” from Stenger.

The county executive said he will answer every question, but he took offense at the tone of some of the queries. He pointed out that three of the council members also took campaign donations from the Glarners before the July 2016 vote on the lease, including the two who approved the questions alongside Trakas at last week’s meeting, Chairman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, and 1st District Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City. Erby has since returned those donations. The Glarners also donated to the  campaign for state auditor of David Wasinger, the husband of 3rd District Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Town and Country.

“Some of the suggestions that are contained in some of the questions are just absolutely asinine, and it’s really political theater at its worst,” Stenger said. “They are letting politics get in the way of what is a very good deal for taxpayers. They’re probably not going to be pleased with some of my responses, because my responses are going to be truthful and are going to call out the council for what I would call poor political gamesmanship and election-year ankle-biting.”

Every other witness has testified in person, but Trakas and the other committee members said that they sent Stenger questions in writing out of deference to his busy schedule.

But Stenger said he is willing to appear in person and believes there’s another reason the council didn’t take that route.

“They are afraid to have me testify,” Stenger said.

If he testifies, Stenger promised to bring the owner of every business that has opened up at what is now called The Crossings at Northwest since the North County Government Center opened, including Tenant Health and Charter.

The committee’s first question asks Stenger to back up his claims that 2,500 jobs and 20 employers moved to the area after the county shifted the Board of Election Commissioners and other county offices to a specially redesigned complex in St. Ann at The Crossings.

But many of those jobs came from other county offices that were relocating, the committee claimed.

“The ‘new employers’ in St. Ann are, therefore, largely old employers who relocated from other parts of the county,” the committee wrote. “With respect to existing jobs that have been relocated, what makes being located in St. Ann superior to leaving the jobs and county government functions where they had been?”

The committee asks Stenger to list every text message, call, email or meeting he has had with the Glarners since 2014, and whether any of Stenger’s own family’s limited-liability companies are related to any companies owned by the Glarners.

While Stenger has often pointed to the economic benefits of redeveloping an old mall, the committee asked why he didn’t focus on redeveloping Jamestown Mall, which the county now owns but didn’t at the time the 2016 lease for Northwest Plaza was signed.

The panel also wondered why Stenger did not reinvest some of the redevelopment dollars into North Oaks Shopping Center, which housed some of the offices before they relocated. The county is still on the hook for $350,000 a year in leases there. Those offices had mold and were unsafe for county employees to work in, witnesses have testified.

The committee also questioned why the county did not build a new North County Government Center on county-owned property, financed through borrowing. The question speculated that the move might have saved taxpayers more than $30 million, and taxpayers would have owned the property at the end of 20 years, which will not happen with the Northwest lease.

The committee said that it searched through 7,088 pages of documents provided by Stenger and his staff, but asked what documents were withheld and why. The committee also questions a spreadsheet that served as a cost analysis of the move to the new site, finding that taxpayers would save $10 million. The spreadsheet underplays the space at the old offices and overstates their cost, the committee alleged. The members also want an electronic version showing the metadata and who might have edited the file prior to July 2016.

The Glarners are receiving a host of state and local tax incentives, including tax-increment financing or TIF, for the redevelopment of the mall property. The committee alleges that since the county agreed to pay the site’s property taxes, adding up to $300,000 a year in 2017, the county is paying directly into the TIF district from which St. Ann borrowed $33 million in January and “is using the taxes (much of which is to be paid by St. Louis County) to service this debt.”

The panel asks how many of the Glarners’ private dollars are invested into The Crossings, since one of their family-owned LLCs, Boreas LLC, borrowed $32 million in cash from Wells Fargo secured by the county’s no-termination lease. The county signed off on that loan even before the lease started.

“So the Glarner entities have been provided $33 million from the TIF, $32 million from the Wells Fargo loan, $30 million in New Market Tax credits from the Economic Development Partnership, and $8 million in Brownfield tax credits,” the committee wrote. “This total of $103 million has essentially been invested by the taxpayers. How much have the Glarners invested? How much of the Northwest Crossings development will the taxpayers own in 20 years?”

But if the lease was an insider deal as Page said in a statement a few weeks ago, Stenger said the council would also have to be in on it: “He was saying that it was a great deal for St. Louis County, he held a press conference talking to the camera and said it was a wonderful deal. Now wants to claim this was some kind of insider deal that I guess he was part of.”

Page has said the council was misled with documents from Stenger showing a cost savings by moving offices to The Crossings.

More to Discover