Dead City

31 05 2012

Unearthing the necrophilic affair involving the St. Louis Forestry Division, Land Reutilization Authority, and St. Louis Development Corporation

by Bill Newmann

“Ashen lady give up your vows, save our city right now.”Jim Morrison

In the distance, the din of traffic ebbs and flows on Gravois Boulevard, a heavily-traveled St. Louis thoroughfare. But here in Gatewood Gardens Cemetery, the dead remain unperturbed by the noise. What might perturb the living, however, is this: the bone yard is owned and operated by three overlooked government agencies, an unholy trinity that controls thousands of other properties throughout the city and is accountable to no one.

Signs posted at the cemetery reveal that it is “managed by the St. Louis Development Corp.,” and “maintained by (the) Forestry Division City of St. Louis.” City property records list the land owner as the Land Reutilization Authority. LRA is one of seven economic development authorities under the umbrella of SLDC, which “manages, maintains, markets, and sells” LRA property, according to its website. LRA gains the tax-delinquent parcels through legal seizures.

The agency seized Gatewood Gardens in 1995. But the genesis of the scheme hearkens back to 1988, when then-Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl chartered the not-for-profit, city-controlled corporation, according to records filed with the Missouri Secretary of State. Since then, a veritable Who’s-Who of city heavyweights have sat on the board, including Martie J. Aboussie, former 9th Ward alderman; Barbara Geisman, former deputy mayor for development; Alfred Wessels Jr., 13th Ward alderman and city treasurer candidate; Larry Williams, city treasurer; and Msgr. Salvatore Polizzi, pastor of St. Roch Church.

The reason that none of this may sound familiar is because SLDC is not obligated to divulge its business activities.  Under state law, SLDC does not have to disclose information regarding “leasing, purchase, or sale of real estate,” or “sealed bids and proposals and related documents, or documents related to a negotiated contract.” SLDC board members are also exempt from liability for the corporation’s actions. The fine print states that anyone working for SLDC, past and present, “shall be indemnified by the corporation in the manner and to the full extent that such person may be indemnified.” SLDC later bolstered the indemnity clause by filing nearly three pages of amendments to the original articles of incorporation. In short, the set up has allowed SLDC to skirt oversight, carrying out its secretive agenda without financial or regulatory scrutiny.

This lack of acceptable accounting principles prompted Missouri State Auditor Susan Montee to recommend a change in the way that the Forestry Division does business with SLDC, after she discovered Forestry’s ledgers were short more than $1.5 million in 2008. During that fiscal year, Forestry maintained 3,500 properties for LRA. Despite the volume of work, no documentation could be found of any agreement between Forestry and SLDC other than Forestry’s billing records. Montee advised that Forestry should “[e]nter into formal written contracts for services rendered or obtained,” but the auditor lacked legal authority to enforce her recommendations.

In its convoluted response, Forestry failed to directly address the state auditor’s allegations. Instead, it simply said that maintaining LRA property is its “responsibility.” Forestry Commissioner Greg Hayes duns LRA annually for services rendered but has failed to collect the amount due, according to Forestry’s response. Forestry expressed an unwillingness to enter into a written agreement until LRA pays its bills. As an alternative solution, Forestry proposed sending the bills to itself and then forwarding them to the mayor or Budget Division for verification.

More than three years after the state auditor found this discrepancy, nothing has changed. No contracts have been implemented as she suggested. Nobody in city government has addressed the concerns raised in the audit. Forestry’s bills are still the only existing records, says a Forestry Division spokeswoman. When questioned about this mystery, SLDC Communications Director Ivie Clay could not provide an explanation of any kind.

Those responsible for the $1.5 million shortfall have relegated it to a footnote, a petty detail, an inconvenient error in arithmetic in a cash-strapped city budget that continually robs Peter to pay Paul. But the imbalance intimates something darker, as well. SLDC claims that part of its mission is to “stimulate the market for private investment in city real estate.” But potential investors aren’t paying the freight — taxpayers are. Moreover, the lax arrangement between the Forestry Division and SLDC affords the opportunity for the potential misuse of authority and misappropriation of public funds.

For decades, city residents have been unknowingly subsidizing the upkeep of the cemetery and thousands of other land tracts. Many of them drive by the graveyard every day not realizing they own a piece of it.

They keep their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel, as oblivious to SLDC’s cloaked machinations as the dead.

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