Top St. Louis officials want bodyguards

May 5--ST. LOUIS -- A late addition to the city budget plan calls for hiring two sheriff's deputies to act as bodyguards, and possibly drivers, for a pair of top elected officials.

The two new officers would be added to the city Sheriff's Department for about $27,000 each and would be assigned to Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed and Comptroller Darlene Green.

Some aldermen, who must still approve the allocation, are dubious about spending money to protect individual officeholders at a time when taxpayers are being asked to pay more just to put police on the street.

Still, Reed and Green say the extra security -- a perk of the office that was phased out years ago -- will help keep them safe while they are out in the community.

"There have been threats in the past," said Rory Roundtree, an aide to Reed. "As a citywide, head of the legislative branch, it's important to be protected while in the community."

According to Reed, those threats came when he was previously an alderman -- including a phone call promising to shoot him in the head.

Both Green and Reed already have use of a city car. Reed's office says the deputy could be used as a driver, as well.

Green drives herself but would welcome the extra security "when her job takes her to places that are either dangerous or in the evening," said a spokesman, John Farrell. He added that Green has also received threats in the past.

"Her position as comptroller requires her to be at places throughout the St. Louis region, at all hours of the day and night," Farrell said.

Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, who sits on the Ways and Means Committee, which has authority over the budget, said the added security "sounds outrageous."

"I can't wait to hear the justification," he said.

Boyd's ward includes some of the toughest neighborhoods in the city, including one where a police officer was killed last year.

"Why don't the aldermen get a bodyguard?" Boyd asked. "Can we just call the sheriff and say, 'Can you drive us around the neighborhood today?' "

City officials are in the midst of shaping the city's $960 million operating plan for the upcoming fiscal year.

The money for bodyguards was not in the original budget, a thick binder distributed around City Hall last month. It was, however, included in an amendment approved unanimously on April 17 by the city's Board of Estimate and Apportionment -- a panel comprised of Reed, Green and Mayor Francis Slay. The panel signs off on all major spending decisions.

The amendment did not say why the officers were needed or who asked for them -- only that they would be hired at $26,988 each, the starting salary for a city deputy sheriff. That figure does not include the health insurance and pension benefits available to the sheriff's staff.

The two deputies were not sought by Sheriff Jim Murphy's office.

Reed, who was elected board president last year, says he made the request as part of an overall push to add five deputies to the city payroll. The other three deputies, he said, would be stationed at courthouses.

Green's office said that while she welcomed the extra protection for herself, she did not ask for it.

Both Green, in her third full-term, and Reed said the pair of deputies assigned to them would be used on an "as needed" basis, and spend the rest of their time helping with courthouse security.

Slay was initially surprised to learn that they would be used as bodyguards.

In an interview Wednesday, he said he originally thought the deputies would be used to beef up security at the Board of Aldermen.

The next day, a Slay aide, Tim Embree, said the mayor supported the measure, referring to the Feb. 7 shooting rampage at Kirkwood City Hall, where six people, including two councilmen, were killed.

"After what happened in Kirkwood, the mayor was not going to vote against it," Embree said.

Slay, like many big city mayors, has a security detail of his own. The city Police Department assigns three sergeants -- with a minimum salary of $52,200 each -- to work in shifts driving the mayor and guarding him at official functions.

Cities, though, have mixed policies on offering protection to officials outside the mayor's office. In Philadelphia, for example, the city council president has a driver but no security. In Los Angeles, the council president has neither a driver nor security.

In Oakland and Denver -- where, like, St. Louis, the chief fiscal officer is elected by voters -- the office does not come with a driver or bodyguard.

The Denver auditor holds regular "coffee shop office hours" in the community, often "with no staff of any kind," a spokesman, Denis Berckefeldt, said.

In St. Louis, funding for bodyguards may have a tough time passing the aldermanic Ways and Means Committee, which could strike the item from the budget when members convene later this month.

"It does seem a little ironic that the comptroller, who did not support the sales tax for additional police, feels that there is a need for additional security for her," said committee Chairman Stephen Conway.

Green took no position on a half-cent sales tax voters approved in February to secure pension funding and hire more police officers.

"A driver or individual security just isn't realistic," Conway said. "It is not necessary and not what the public has asked us to do."

Alderman Marlene Davis, who also sits on Ways and Means, said she would wait until learning more before taking a stance but understands the desire for extra protection.

"It's not always safe out there," Davis said.

Security was available to comptrollers and board presidents 20 years ago, but was taken out of the budget in the early 1990s. Former comptroller Virvus Jones said that when the city stopped paying for security, he paid for extra protection from his campaign account.

"It was a convenience, as well as gave you a sense of security," Jones said.

Tom Villa, the last Board of Aldermen president to have a deputy sheriff assigned to him, said he used the position as an extra staffer, "running errands, delivering papers and, in some cases, serving as a driver."

But Villa, who was president from 1987 to 1995, said he's not so sure there still is a need for the position, even though aldermanic meetings can get a little "spirited."

"There were times when a sense of security would be in order," said Villa, now a state representative. "But you could always call across the street and get a police officer to come on over."

Copyright (c) 2008, St. Louis Post-Dispatch Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.