Ward 4 candidates talk economy, taxes at Crestwood forum

Foote, Nieder answer residents’ questions.

By EVAN YOUNG

Candidates for the Crestwood Ward 4 aldermanic seat that’s up for grabs in the April 6 election fielded questions — predominantly about the city’s economy — from residents Tuesday evening.

Incumbent Ward 4 Alderman John Foote and his challenger, former Alderman Steve Nieder, participated in a candidate forum sponsored by the Crestwood-Sunset Hills Area Chamber of Commerce and moderated by the League of Women Voters of St. Louis. The event drew roughly 30 attendees.

Foote is seeking his second, three-year term on the Crestwood Board of Aldermen. Nieder hopes to return to the office; he was defeated for re-election in April 2009 after serving one term.

While Ward 1 Alderman Mimi Duncan, Ward 2 Alderman Jeff Schlink and Ward 3 Alderman Jerry Miguel also are up for election next week and participated in Tuesday’s forum, they all are unopposed for re-election in their wards. This piece will focus on Foote and Nieder.

Tuesday’s forum took place in Crestwood Court’s community room, one of dozens of vacant spaces in the mall on Watson Road. Both city officials and the property’s owners have said the troubled retail center, which once generated a large part of Crestwood’s sales-tax revenue, will be redeveloped, but those plans have yet to materialize.

If and when they do take shape, however, the Ward 4 aldermanic candidates were asked if they supported the use of economic tools, such as tax-increment financing, or TIF, to redevelop the property.

Nieder replied, “The cities in our competitive retail market have used TIF, eminent domain and other tax tools to an extreme. The retail market is not growing. All that is accomplished with the use of these development tools is to ship revenue from one municipality to another.

“Even the threat of eminent domain, as was the case in Sunset Hills, can have catastrophic effects on a community. The $49 million TIF for Gravois Bluffs has attracted a number of businesses out of Crestwood but has not demonstrated any increase in revenue for St. Louis County.”

Foote said, “Each tool has a specific purpose. If you do not use them properly, you’re going to get cut. So when we look at the individual developments we’re going to have to weigh the benefits and the costs. One of the biggest concerns we have in this area is the support of Lindbergh School District. Without Lindbergh School District being in a healthy condition, all of our properties suffer if we have a less-functional school. After looking at what the proposals are, we then make the decisions.”

Asked what they would do to bring new businesses to Crestwood and to help those businesses that already are in the city, but currently are struggling, Nieder said, “I’m not aware of ones that are struggling. I’ll recount one instance that happened earlier when I was alderman. We had a proposal come to us to embrace a new business — Schaeffer Auto Body — which I wholeheartedly supported, and unfortunately it was turned down. I find out later that same business was given an award by the Crestwood-Sunset Hills Chamber of Commerce (Community Improvement Award) … So obviously I support any type of new business that wants to come into Crestwood.”

Foote responded, “Currently, since we’re involved with the Crestwood-Sunset Hills Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Development Committee, we meet monthly concerning opportunities within the community. Specifically we’re working in the demographics of approximately 28 square miles of Lindbergh School District and that’s one of the most important single entities. And good economic support for that school district will reflect on all of us within the area. It certainly makes a difference when a house is up for sale that you have good demographics and a good school system … Our hopes are to move our city forward and our area, and to get better economic results.”

The candidates also were asked if they would support a property tax-increase to make up for declining sales-tax revenue. Crestwood voters defeated such a measure, Proposition 1, at the polls in August 2008.

Foote said, “We’ve had a number of cash-flow problems within the city. Cash flow has improved as the debt load has been paid down and paid off. We still have payments we make on the aquatic center. It’s a question of trying to get the best value for the money we have and spend it wisely.

“In 2008, we pushed for a review of the sales taxes. We looked at the revenue, we looked at the cost of running the city and we came to the conclusion that we needed to submit a tax on property to patch the city together to get through this economic storm. That would’ve prevented or at least slowed down the loss of people. We were at, in 2003, 130 people. As of now, we’re at 94. That’s over 28 percent of our staff is gone. There’s a minimum as to how far you can take this. If further cuts were made to any of the services, particularly fire, it would cost us in insurance.”

Nieder responded, “I’m not in favor of a property-tax increase at this point. We’re doing very well … as far as our cash position. We have Kohl’s property tax coming online now. That’s an estimated couple hundred thousand dollars a year that we didn’t have to count on before.

“As far as sales-tax performance, I believe … sales tax probably is at a low. I have a little bit of a secret with the job I’m in. I can see capital expenditures ahead of most people, and right now those are starting to pick up, which means eventually sales themselves will pick up and so will the tax.”

While Nieder has said he opposed Prop 1 in 2008, he voted in favor of placing the property tax-increase on the ballot.

Asked to reconcile the contradiction Tuesday night, Nieder, after acknowledging he did vote to put the issue to voters, said, “A couple of days after I made that vote, some very troubling information came to me as to the committee that was developing these meetings, how it was being used and how it was being presented to the public, and some of the misinformation that was in that public presentation as far as the numbers and that type of thing. It became very troubling to me.

“So I decided that based on that, we aren’t giving the public correct information and it should be stopped at this point until everything is done in a proper fashion and good information is given out to the voters to make a decision.”

Since all forum participants were allowed to respond to each question, Foote said in response to the question for Nieder, “I supported and voted for Prop 1. The primary reason was … we had on many occasions given reports to the citizens that everything was fine, and then a week later we’d say everything was in terrible shape. I don’t think anybody had a clear understanding of what our financial systems were. Revenues went down over $1 million. We did see the coming economic storm.

“We wanted to put in a sufficient Band-Aid and it (Prop 1) was set for a six-year period so we could get through that time. It was, however, debated heavily and eventually … passed (placed on the ballot). And then there was a tremendous amount of misinformation and a lot of argument. The idea of trying to clarify situations fell by the wayside, politics entered and it was destroyed. We still have to address our city and its needs. Residents need to get involved.”

During closing remarks Tuesday, Foote encouraged Crestwood residents to become more involved in their city’s affairs.

“All we will need to do is take advantage of our excellent location; be faithful and control our costs; be sure we develop the opportunities we have and bring all the residents in on this,” Foote said, “because it’s going to take all of us to move this city forward — not just those on the board.”

Nieder asked residents in his ward for their vote, which he said would be for a “man of action.”

“As we move toward the April 6 election we will be asked for an outline of the plans for how to rebuild Crestwood Court, fill empty business buildings along the Watson Road corridor, replace the aging streets, maintain the quality of the housing stock and all the rest,” Nieder said. “But what will determine who gets elected won’t be a specific set of policies, but something much simpler: a recognition that character is more important than personality, that education is not the same as judgment and that expertise without common sense is dangerous. Actions speak louder than words. Unlike my opponent, I am a man of action, not words.”