ST. LOUIS, Missouri — City streets in St. Louis are long overdue for upgrades, and elected officials have promised repairs are on the way in the form of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds.
The Board of Aldermen approved a plan to spend $88.4 million in ARPA dollars last February, including tens of millions in paving and infrastructure upgrades on various projects that stretch through several wards across the entire city.
However, members of the Board of Aldermen have access to a special pool of money to make some of those improvements on their own.
Every year, each alderperson is allotted more than $300,000 in ward capital funds to spend on upgrades around the neighborhoods. The little-known fund can often pay to install speed bumps, repair sidewalks, or fill in potholes.
However, some aldermen spend more of their ward capital than others. A recent review of city spending records showed Alderman Joe Vaccaro spent almost all of his available funds, leaving his account with just $5,066 left in it.
"The city is in really bad shape," Vaccaro said on Monday afternoon. "When you drive down the roads, the number of potholes, the tripping hazards on the streets, the trees that haven't been trimmed."
The average ward has roughly half a million dollars in ward capital available for repairs and upgrades, though there are some outliers.
Ward 1 alderwoman Sharon Tyus accrued $1,935,003 in unspent ward capital funds, which is more than twice as much as the next highest amount on the list. Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia is sitting on $814,908 in ward capital funds, followed by Alderman James Page with $721,905.
Tyus, who chairs the city's Streets, Traffic, and Refuse Committee, claims obstacles in the mayor's office blocked her from spending the money on projects she preferred.
"They won't spend it," she said at a board meeting in December. "They haven't. I've been requesting. I can show you the letter."
Tyus produced emails showing periodic requests to city staff working under former mayors Lyda Krewson and Francis Slay where she asked for them to install trash cans in Handy Park on the north side or to supply bids for stronger, safer curbs along Kingshighway where she's seen several cars careen over crumbling concrete and crash into fences or houses.
Tyus, who has not yet filed nominating petitions to appear on the ballot, would not confirm if she plans to seek re-election in a newly redrawn ward with twice as many constituents. Instead, she hinted that she could seek higher office.
"I'm way more qualified than [Board of Alderman President] Megan Green," Tyus said in a phone call on Monday night. "I might be running for the President of the Board."
Vaccaro, another veteran alderman who often aligns with Tyus in floor debate, acknowledged sparsely populated wards in the city's north side can often present more difficult challenges, but also suggested some members might be tempted to hoard ward capital as their own version of a rainy-day fund to bolster their political prospects.
"It does seem that a lot of alder people will hold all their money until right before an election, and all of a sudden you'll see all kinds of work being done," Vaccaro said. "I just have a different philosophy."
Aldermen Tom Oldenburg and Jack Coatar finished the year in second and third place on total ward capital spending, spending their accounts down to $125,015 and $172,254 respectively. Records show Coatar spent most of his money on traffic calming projects and safety improvements to crosswalks while Oldenburg spent the bulk of his ward capital on school drop-off lanes and upgrades to create accessible sidewalks for people with disabilities.
City spending records show Vaccaro's largest authorized expense was $140,363 to install police surveillance cameras at Tilles Park where he said neighbors complained about vandalism and random crime. He spent other funds on upgrades to sidewalks and streets in his ward.
"You can tell when you leave my ward," he said, pointing across the bridge into the 24th Ward. "This side's paved. That side's not."
Mona Gardner lives there with her mother in the Lindenwood Park neighborhood and said local leaders need to show more urgency in repairing the crumbling roads outside her home.
"I don't trust them because they're not doing their job," she said. "It's obvious they're not."
"Please do your job and fix the roads because I have seen people pop their tires, almost have wrecks, and everything," Gardner said. "It's just...It's madness."
Gardner's alderman, Bret Narayan, did not immediately return messages or emails seeking comment for this story.
Records show Narayan's lone ward capital expense last year was $69,414 to install curbs and improve sidewalks in Dogtown, and he has $707,044 in available ward capital. Narayan filed petitions to run against Vaccaro in a larger ward in the upcoming spring election.