The St. Louis County Council learned Oct. 6 that the county scuttled plans for a new county police precinct in South County to build the new North County Precinct instead, but 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas said last week that he worked with County Executive Sam Page on financing to move ahead with both precincts.
Trakas, R-Oakville — who is being challenged by Rep. Bob Burns, D-Affton, in the election Tuesday, Nov. 3 — issued a statement Oct. 14 that he “secured an agreement” for construction of the stalled precinct. Construction in South County is now expected to start by spring 2021 if the council approves refinancing the precincts’ bonds this winter, the 6th District representative said.
After talking to Page and project managers from the Department of Public Works, Trakas said, “There was no rational or reasonable basis not to proceed with South County, so the only reasonable conclusion was how do we get the money?”
County voters approved plans for two new St. Louis County Police Department precincts, one in South County and one in North County, in April 2017 as part of the Proposition P countywide sales tax for police and public safety. What was then projected as the $13 million combined costs of the two precincts is now estimated at $22 million. The last estimate The Call had been given from the county was $20 million in May 2019. But the primary purpose of Prop P, raises for police officers, has eaten up nearly that entire budget.
Progress on both precincts was delayed earlier this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but council members were taken by surprise when they found out in a budget hearing Oct. 6 — coincidentally, the fourth anniversary of the death in the line of duty of Affton Southwest Officer Blake Snyder — that the North County station had jumped ahead of the Affton Southwest one because the county couldn’t afford both at once, and that the Affton one might not even happen. The confirmation of what had been a rumor in Affton came from Budget Director Paul Kreidler as he outlined Page’s proposed 2021 budget, in response to a question from 3rd District Councilman Tim Fitch, R-Fenton.
Trakas protested later in the meeting, “It was my clear understanding that that was a priority item, the Prop P funds used to purchase that property were done expressly for that purpose and that in fact the drawings have been completed, the land has been prepared and frankly I find no sufficient excuse as to why that project has been put on hold. And if it’s canceled, there will be serious and spirited discussions with respect to that.”
County officials had told The Call since passage of Prop P that the new Affton Southwest Precinct/3rd Precinct would be built before the new North County Precinct/1st Precinct, and the precinct in South County is much farther along, with land purchased, zoned and prepared with permits and rights of way. In contrast, although land for the North County station is being purchased from a union, designs and architectural renderings are not yet finished and the site has not received the necessary zoning or permits, Trakas said.
The new Affton Southwest site, on 4.1 acres and five parcels at 11448 through 11530 Gravois Road across from the Lindbergh Schools Central Office, is 2.6 miles and a five-minute drive down Gravois from the since-abandoned original location at 9928 Gravois Road.
In the years since the Prop P vote, the Affton Southwest Precinct has been forced to move twice, once in 2018 to temporary digs in Crestwood and once in 2019 to its current location in office space at 5030 Griffin Road off Tesson Ferry Road in Concord. The county was forced to abandon the original longtime rented location of the Affton Southwest station because of a roof leak that appeared to cause mold.
Stenger blamed by county officials
Designs for the Affton station were finished by the April 2019 resignation of former County Executive Steve Stenger, who oversaw the passage of Prop P two years before he pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges that sent him to prison.
The two stations were originally envisioned to be built on parallel paths, Trakas said, but Stenger moved ahead with the South County precinct first.
When Page took office to succeed Stenger, “understandably,” Trakas said, the new county executive had to address other issues ahead of the precincts.
In a letter to Page before their meeting, Trakas said that after consulting with Public Works, he is blaming Stenger, whose administration he alleges underestimated the costs to build the precincts by half in order to stretch the proposed Prop P budget. The numbers were never checked by Public Works to ensure their accuracy.
In past interviews with The Call, county officials under Stenger said that estimates for the buildings were based on the lower cost of the new South County Precinct constructed in 2013 on Sappington Barracks Road, which was built for $5 million on free land in a county park. Then-St. Louis County Chief Jon Belmar said before Prop P passed that he estimated that land alone would cost “$5-6 million, ballpark” in addition to construction costs of about $5 million. But that appeared to be a combined estimate, and the county paid $3.4 million to Heimos Properties for the South County land alone.
But whether the Stenger administration is to blame or not is “ancient history,” Trakas said. Current county officials believed there was not enough money to go forward with both precincts.
Along with Page’s replacement of Stenger, two other reshuffles in leadership could have played into the decision. Belmar, who used to live in Affton and once worked in that precinct, retired and was replaced April 30 by new Chief Mary Barton, whose career has been spent primarily in North County. Trakas said that for reasons he did not know or agree with, public-works officials told him that Barton decided to go ahead with North County over the South County station.
“Had Belmar still been there and COVID not happened, they’d had a good portion of the building up already,” Trakas said. “People conveniently forget all those things and say it should have been done.”
Talking to The Call about the need for the new precinct during the campaign for Prop P, Belmar said, “Have you been in the 3rd Precinct in Affton? Up until like a year ago (when commander Capt. Melissa Webb made improvements), that looked like the set for ‘Barney Miller,’ and I’m not even kidding. They’ve outgrown it. That station was built to house about 40 guys in 1974 — actually it wasn’t built, we rented it in 1974.”
Trakas said he and Belmar “were in pretty regular communication” about the progress of the precinct for the last several years, but after the LGBT discrimination verdict and settlement for Lt. Keith Wildhaber that preceded Belmar’s retirement, “the people’s focus wasn’t on it anymore.”
Barton said in a statement, “2020 has presented new challenges regarding budgets and allocating funding where it is needed most. I’m happy to see a solution has been reached and the people of both the Affton Southwest Precinct and the North County Precinct can expect new precinct stations to allow our officers to better serve their respective communities.”
In the reshuffle created by Barton’s hiring, Webb, the Affton Southwest Precinct commander during the Prop P vote and in the years since, was reassigned to lead the MetroLink division. The move leaves the precinct with no current permanent commander. Webb was a supporter of the new precinct and what it would do for officers, touring other departments and giving input on the design.
In January 2018, Webb told The Call, “The officers are getting very excited. They would love to have a new building and a new place, especially for this community. It’s so amazing.”
In the year she took over the precinct before it was forced to move, she made improvements to its interior for the officers.
Construction is now expected to begin by early 2021 on the Affton Southwest Precinct after the county refinances the bond financing it already had in place to fund the higher cost of the precincts. Under the deal, both precincts would move forward at the same time, with the bond payments stretched out over more years to finance both stations, Trakas said.
The council would have to approve the financing, however. Chairwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, who heads the 4-3 Democratic majority, also represents part of Affton.
If the council approves, Trakas said shovels could be in the ground as soon as this December.
“This agreement with the County Executive is a big win for the safety of residents in the Affton community and all of County Council District 6,” Trakas said. “Construction of this station was at the heart of this community’s support for Proposition P and to delay this project any further was unacceptable to me and the residents of the district.”