Budget hearing slated for Tuesday

By Alyson E. Raletz

A public hearing on the 2004 budget recommended by the late County Executive George R. “Buzz” Westfall will be conducted next week by the County Council.

The public hearing will take place at 7:45 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 18, in the County Council Chambers in the Administration Building of the County Government Center, 41 S. Central Ave., Clayton.

Westfall died Oct. 27. One of his final county government actions was the preparation of the 2004 budget, a budget that proposes cutting operating expenditures by 2.06 percent. The proposed 2004 budget of $444,700,578 totals 6.73 percent less than the 2003 budget of $476,769,384.

“The county did take a lot of big cuts. And I’m concerned about that,” John Campisi, R-south county, told the Call. “You can only cut so far without actually crippling the county government. And so I am going to be looking hard at the amount of the cuts that were made.

“I do realize that there have to be cuts here and there, but I still want to make sure our services that we provide aren’t crippled,” he added.

An unsigned message Westfall wrote is attached to the 2004 budget proposal and notes that attempts were made so county services were not crippled — despite the 6.73 percent cut.

“While this is a significant decrease and it will impact county services, it could potentially be worse. To soften the impact on county services, I am proposing a one time adjustment of property tax rates for the 2004 budget year.”

Westfall also recommended that the tax rate remain at 58 cents per $100 of assessed valuation — the 15th consecutive year the tax rate has remained unchanged.

Westfall’s proposal suggests that the debt service rate of 0.085 cents per $100 of assessed valuation not be collected in 2004, but be allocated to three of the four operating funds since “current balances in the debt service fund are adequate to cover the 2004 debt service payments and would permit the allocation of the tax rate to other funds for one year.”

According to the budget documents, the general fund would be increased by 0.065 cents per $100 and both the Health and Park and Recreation Maintenance funds would receive 0.01 cents per $100 each.

Westfall’s message attached to the budget attributed many budget cuts to Missouri’s overall state of financial distress.

He also identifies that the county isn’t bringing in as much tax revenue.

“Our taxable assessed value continues to grow, but at a much slower rate than in the past.”

In 2002, assessed value growth amounted to a scarce 0.39 percent — 4.91 percent less than the assessed growth per year from 1995 to 2001.

However, in 2003 assessed values grew 5.5 percent. But the trend continues with only a 1 percent increase expected for 2004.

Also, sales tax revenue is declining. In 2002, sales tax decreased 0.84 percent and is predicted to decrease another 2 percent by the end of 2003.

The proposal reduces the debt service fund by 14.29 percent, the “other funds” that come from special revenue by 10.39 percent and the public mass transit tax fund by 1.32 percent.

However, the most significant decrease cuts the highway capital construction allocation by 35.62 percent.

“That was more of a slash than a cut,” Campisi told the Call. “I think they went down 2 (percent) to 3 percent last year, but not like this — this is a slash in the jugular.”

That number alarms Campisi because of what it could do to south county, he said.

He said he can’t remember that fund ever taking a similar cut before.

It is disturbing, he said, because much of the work completed with money from the highway construction capital fund takes place in the unincorporated areas of south county. He said he will look into and investigate that specific budget allocation.

“When you look at that kind of budget, road repair … that’s one of the services you really don’t want to cut back a lot on because it basically keeps the infrastructure of the unincorporated area maintained. And so we don’t want to lose that maintenance … I’m going to be looking really hard at that.”

He said he can think of no justification for a cut of this magnitude.