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State takeover of St. Louis police could cost Missouri taxpayers 'hundreds of millions of dollars,' Mayor Jones says

The Hancock Amendment in the Missouri constitution bans unfunded mandates. An exception written for Kansas City's police department is set to expire in 2026.

ST. LOUIS, Missouri — In her quest to retain local control of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, Mayor Tishaura Jones has begun warning state taxpayers they could get stuck with a costly tab for the transition.

During a recent appearance on MSNBC, Jones suggested a state takeover of the local police department would cost the state "hundreds of millions of dollars."

The messaging campaign appears tailored to stir regional resentment from rural Republican Senate districts where voters would likely disapprove of bailing out a big urban city's police department.

According to Jones, the state "would have to purchase all of our equipment, all of our buildings, all of our cars and the administrative process would be chaotic. None of that has been allocated in either of these bills that are moving in the Senate or on the House side."

The mayor's argument hinges on which government can lay claim to the real property of the police department, but the legislative proposals would force the city to hand over "ownership of all indebtedness and assets." 

City staffers who object to or interfere with the transition would face daily fines of $1,000. 

Critics of the state takeover have suggested it could also potentially pin police health insurance and pension costs on the state. In a fiscal note, the city's budget director, Paul Payne, estimated those costs "could be measured in the tens of millions of dollars" after an actuarial analysis.

The proposal also says, "The state shall accept responsibility, ownership, and liability ... for contractual obligations."

However, the new pay raise the Jones administration just inked with the police union includes a clause that cancels the entire union contract in the event of a state takeover. 

"If the state were to take control, the raises that have just been granted to officers would be taken away," Board of Aldermen President Megan Green said. "I'm not sure that the General Assembly wants to actually defund our police department."

The new police union contract gives new recruits a starting salary of $54,000, which represents a $4,000 raise. Veteran officers got an even bigger raise, depending on how long they've been in the force. 

If a new Board of Police Commissioners was seated, it would have to start over negotiating a new union contract. City officials have said they would sue and ask Missouri courts to find the takeover was an unfunded mandate, which is banned under the Hancock Amendment. 

"Potentially, it would be the entire state that would have to pay for it," Green said. "The state cannot dictate how we spend our local resources or require us to spend money. They would have to pick up the bill."

Last year, voters approved an exception to the Hancock Amendment, which was intended to compel Kansas City to spend a specified share of city revenue to fund the police department. Police unions feel that exemption would also apply to St. Louis as a charter city.

If a court ultimately rules that the 2022 exception does apply to St. Louis, Jones' office estimates the changes could do "significant fiscal damage" to the city budget, including roughly $18 million more in annual spending related to the transition.

However, the Kansas City exception to the Hancock Amendment is set to expire in 2026, which raises questions about whether a future court might rule the unfunded mandate was unconstitutional.

The St. Louis Police Officers Association has pushed for the return of state control over the department, which would lock in minimum hiring quotas and pay raises for the officers. Veterans of the force with 20 years of experience would get eight weeks of paid vacation under the proposal. 

Representatives for the police union were not available to interview for this story but expressed confidence that the pending changes in state law would survive constitutional challenges in court.

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