ST. LOUIS — The scramble over $519 million in settlement money from the NFL entered a new phase Wednesday, the day after negotiators struck a tentative agreement on how to divide the money between the city, St. Louis County and The Dome at America’s Center.
Agreement in hand, regional leaders began suggesting ways to spend the money: They proposed fixing roads and bridges and making college more affordable for the region’s children. It could boost benefits for employees in the city and plug a budget hole in the county. There was even talk of funding a guaranteed basic income program.
The settlement, paid by the NFL after Rams owner Stan Kroenke moved the team to Los Angeles, is a windfall for the region. And on Wednesday it became clear that there will almost certainly be a robust debate on how to spend it. Some called for pothole filling and budget Band-Aids. Others said it is the best chance for the region to invest in marquee projects that could improve residents’ lives, attract much-needed newcomers and restore confidence in the region.
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“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said St. Louis County Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, a Democrat from Maplewood. “And we need to be careful not to squander that.”
The region has been waiting for a year. Ever since the settlement was announced late last year, the parties have focused largely on closed-door negotiations over who gets what.
Things changed Tuesday, when St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O. Jones and St. Louis County Executive Sam Page showed up at the negotiating table personally. “That signaled to us we were ready to make a settlement,” said the Rev. Earl Nance Jr., chair of the Dome authority.
And they did. St. Louis, where the Rams played home games and which led the effort to keep the team, would get $250 million. St. Louis County, which made annual payments on the Dome and was a plaintiff in the suit against the NFL, would get $169 million. The Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority, or RSA, which owns the Dome and was the third plaintiff in the lawsuit, would get $70 million. The downtown convention center expansion would get the last $30 million.
The 11-member RSA board, appointed by city, county and state officials, still needs to vote on the deal to make it final.
But leaders woke up Wednesday with a good idea of their hauls.
In the city, Jones applauded the deal.
She said in a statement the money must be used to “make long-term, transformational change in our communities for future generations.” She did not elaborate.
Newly elected Aldermanic President Megan Green, one of Jones’ foremost allies, outlined a variety of possibilities: An investment in early childhood care and education. A program to help more residents afford college. A push to remediate lead in buildings throughout the city.
She said the city could use some of the money to start up the new programs, set aside the rest as an endowment, and use the interest to cover ongoing costs.
Aldermen had other ideas. Alderman Jack Coatar, of Soulard, suggested using the money to help pay for big road and bridge projects.
Alderman Anne Schweitzer, of far south city, suggested everything from cleaning up parks to improving trash pickup to creating a down payment assistance program for city employees.
“The city’s share of the money is going to be of great interest to the board,” Coatar said.
In the county, a spokesman for Page, a Democrat, called the money “an opportunity to invest in the future of generations to come,” and said the county expects to have listening sessions where residents can talk about how they’d like the money to be used.
“We will listen to all ideas,” said the spokesman, Doug Moore.
Councilman Ernie Trakas, a Republican from South County, said it’s already obvious where some of the money should go: to fill an anticipated $41 million deficit in the county budget.
“It would be reckless for the council to do anything other than use a significant portion of this money for budget deficits,” Trakas said.
Dennis Hancock, a Fenton Republican elected this month to the County Council, said fixing budget holes requires permanent revenue streams, not one-time windfalls. He suggested spending on roads instead.
“Although I think there are some people who would like to see us sue Stan Kroenke every year, I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Hancock said.
Nance, the Dome board chair, said he expected the board to approve the city-county split at its meeting next Wednesday.
But there may yet be some disagreement at the board.
The board, appointed by city, county and state officials, voted earlier this month to recommend parking all the money in an investment fund that would generate earnings to pay for projects and services benefiting the city and county for years to come.
Joseph Blanner, an attorney from Eureka appointed to the board by Gov. Mike Parson, introduced the investment resolution, and on Wednesday emphasized that the Jones-Page agreement hammered out Tuesday isn’t final.
“I don’t have any comments right at the moment,” Blanner said. “I would note it’s a proposed settlement that has to go back to the RSA.”
While it didn’t explicitly say it, Blanner’s resolution appeared to endorse an idea floated by the region’s business lobby, Greater St. Louis Inc. The organization on Tuesday urged the three jurisdictions to invest the money “with a boldness that transcends jurisdictional boundaries and drives inclusive growth across the metro.”
Jason Hall, the organization’s CEO, said Wednesday metro areas that have successfully handled similar windfalls have featured close collaboration between all entities involved.
“We have an opportunity here to think transcendent and make a catalytic investment that drives this region forward,” Hall said. “We’re not going to get another shot like this.”