Sunset Hills aldermen vote down pact for grant funds

Approval would have given federal grant money to 15 homes in Sunset Manor

By BURKE WASSON

An opportunity for the owners of 15 homes in need of repair in Sunset Manor to apply for roughly $5,000 apiece in federal grant funds was denied last week by the Sunset Hills Board of Aldermen.

Aldermen voted 4-3 against adopting an ordinance approving a Municipal Housing and Community Development Cooperation Agreement set forth by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, and administered by St. Louis County.

Ward 1 Alderman Michael Sawicki, Ward 2 Alderman John Littlefield, Ward 4 Alderman Donald Parker and Ward 4 Alderman Frank Gregory were opposed to the ordinance.

Ward 1 Alderman Frank Hardy, Ward 2 Alderman Thomas Hrastich and Ward 3 Alderman Lynn D. Flowers voted for the agreement. Ward 3 Alderman Jan Hoffmann was absent from the May 23 meeting.

Aldermen were faced with a quick decision to vote May 23 because a letter of intent to HUD was due May 26, according to Hrastich and Flowers. An application with the county to make Sunset Hills eligible for such grant money would not be due until late June.

Gregory said he could not join his fellow newly elected aldermen in support of the agreement because City Attorney Robert C. Jones was advising aldermen against the move. He said Jones informed aldermen that the proposed agreement called for the Sunset Hills Police Department to have a policy relating to enforcement of the improved area.

Because Jones told him that he was not sure if such a policy exists in the Police Department, Gregory said he could not vote for the agreement because of potential litigation concerns that could arise.

“It was a legal issue that we did not have a clarification as to respect whether the city policies had included this specific concern,” Gregory said. “And by signing this policy, you affirm that that policy is in existence. And it’s one of those legal technicalities where you don’t want to sign something and say yes, we affirm and then somebody says: ‘Oh, by the way, you didn’t have that policy or that exact wording you needed.’ I don’t know what the correct terminology was, but you just couldn’t do it.”

Gregory said Saturday that if the policy regarding police enforcement of the area is found, he would “definitely” vote in favor of the community development agreement.

“My concern was a legal issue, not a practical issue or a reluctance to take advantage of the plot grant program,” Gregory said. “So assuming that the legal technicality is resolved, I’m for it.”

The proposed agreement for federal block grant funds would have given $5,000 apiece to five homes in 2007, five homes in 2008 and five homes in 2009. Only homeowners who earn less than $50,000 per year for a family of four would qualify for the federal grant funds.

Hrastich said that county officials informed aldermen that the homes would receive money on a “first-come, first-served” basis and that city officials would not be allowed to choose exactly which homes would benefit.

The matter was originally tabled by Flowers, but he said that aldermen agreed to vote on the issue after Mayor John Hunzeker said the board had to vote that night on the issue. Flowers said he believes the vote on May 23 had to do with the impending deadline to send a letter, which was due three days from the meeting.

Sunset Hills aldermen approved in 2005 that 254 homes and several businesses in the Sunset Manor subdivision would be razed to make way for the Novus Development Co.’s shopping center MainStreet at Sunset. Aldermen did that by approving Novus’ request for $42 million in tax-increment-financing assistance and $20 million in transportation development district reimbursements to help fund the shopping center at Interstate 44, Watson Road and South Lindbergh Boulevard. The Board of Aldermen also authorized the use of eminent domain to acquire those properties that Novus did not have under contract.

More than 200 homes were scheduled to close beginning in August 2005. But Novus learned Aug. 18 its lender had withdrawn its funding for the development, and the closings were delayed until a new lender could be secured, but Novus was unable to find one.

In late January, St. Louis County Circuit Judge Gloria Clark Reno ruled that the Board of Aldermen did not comply with state law in May 2005 when it adopted the two ordinances related to the Sunset Manor redevelopment project. Aldermen voted unanimously Feb. 14 to adopt an ordinance repealing six ordinances related to the redevelopment project.

Hrastich said while aldermen did not pass the measure he would have liked to see for the troubled subdivision, he hopes Parker was serious in his comment to the board that perhaps Sunset Hills should administer a similar housing improvement program for Sunset Manor.

“I was heartened by comments made by Alderman Parker that possibly the city could do something themselves,” Hrastich said. “I believe that was echoed by other aldermen.”

Flowers and Gregory both said they hope that aldermen will vote on the agreement again in the near future.

“I thought it was an opportunity to get the folks in Sunset Manor some badly needed money to fix up their houses,” Flowers said. “And they just don’t hand out the dough. It’s not just write them a check and hand it to them. They pay the contractor that fixes their house. It’s all administered by St. Louis County. We don’t do anything as far as Sunset Hills goes.

“All we were going to do was designate the area within a certain boundary, which would have been Sunset Manor. You know there’s four or five over there that really need help. But they said we can’t do that because of discrimination. So we were trying to narrow down how small of an area.”

Aldermen already have authorized a condition assessment of the homes in Sunset Manor so that aldermen have a clear idea of how much work each home needs.

While the results of that study are still roughly 10 weeks from being complete, Hrastich said he would hesitate to approve anything specific on improvement of Sunset Manor until he sees that assessment.

He would have, however, approved the HUD grants that the board recently denied.

“What I would want to know is just precisely which houses are still resident owned … and some kind of feel for who’s really hurting and who really needs money to fix things up to either sell or continue to live there,” Hrastich said. “If this assessment doesn’t come up with that, it hasn’t told me anything.”

Flowers said if there is one thing he would tell Sunset Manor homeowners who are anxious for some support, it would be that new aldermen and Hunzeker have only been in office two months and that improvement takes time, but will happen.

“Just be a little patient,” Flowers said. “Things are going to work out fine. They’re all going to be much better off in the future than they are now.”