By Gloria Lloyd
Update: The County Council granted final approval to the 2018 budget with the $31 million in slashed spending at its meeting Dec. 19.
The County Council took steps last week to slash $31 million from County Executive Steve Stenger’s proposed $696 million 2018 budget, although the move has more to do with budgeting style than actual cuts to programs.
The alternate budget filed by council Chairman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, two hours before the Dec. 12 meeting surprised Stenger and at least one council member, 5th District Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights.
Dolan said he learned about the bill from a newspaper before he got a copy himself. Just as unexpected was the fact that most of the council came together on the decision rather than splitting along the 4-3 divide that has characterized most of their major decisions this year.
The 6-1 veto-proof council vote seemed set to finalize the budget Tuesday — after the Call went to press — leaving Stenger with few options other than the court of public opinion. He cited a report issued last month by ratings agency Standard & Poor that noted the county’s “strong budgetary performance” and liquidity, with total cash reserves of over $100 million, or 32 percent of the operating budget.
“It is especially important to me as a certified public account and attorney that this research-based report compiled by financial experts validates the prudent stewardship of taxpayer dollars that has been my priority as county executive and, before that, as a two-term member of the County Council,” Stenger said in a statement.
The council essentially implemented a spending freeze at this year’s levels plus 5 percent extra for next year, or what 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, calls a “spending slushie” to echo the “hiring slushie” instituted by Stenger earlier this year — less than a full freeze.
“He can’t complain that we’ve cut the budget because we haven’t,” Trakas said. “We’ve taken every cent that was spent in 2017 and given that to him plus a little bit extra. What was cut, in essence, is what his requested budget was, not what the budget is in 2017. So based on that, there should be no cuts in services because we haven’t reduced the funding.”
The council was able to come to a rare consensus on the changes because council members all felt strongly that Stenger’s budget, which carried a $6 million deficit in the general fund this year, was unsustainable going forward.
“We do recognize the county executive’s budget message that we got — it says Steve Stenger on the front of it, this is his budget — this tells us very clearly that at the end of 2018 going into 2019 in the general fund, we are headed toward a tax increase or service reduction,” Page said. “And I hope that the belt-tightening that we are expecting among our department directors will help us turn that around.”
Stenger has contended that the county’s financial shape is solid overall and that any financial turnaround needed can be accomplished in a year through attrition.
Budget Director Paul Kreidler noted during a two-hour budget hearing Nov. 8 that the county projects an $18 million operational deficit in 2019 without any additional revenue or cuts. But budgets are tight by choice, he added. Stenger, other county executives and the council have chosen not to raise taxes even though they could. The county has 25 cents of wiggle room until it hits its voter-approved property-tax ceiling.
That means the county is “perilously close to financial emergency,” Trakas warned.
Stenger, who is seeking re-election next year, last month derided council members’ concern over the budget as “election-year politics.” Most of the council is also up for re-election next year, including Dolan, 1st District Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, 7th District Coun-cilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, and 3rd District Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Huntleigh, whose husband, David, is also running in the GOP primary for state auditor next year.
The council increased its own budget by 30 percent, or $527,385, for auditors while it cut $31 million in “vital services,” the county executive said.
“I want to assure St. Louis County residents that regardless of the council’s actions, we will not be raising taxes or cutting services in St. Louis County,” Stenger said.
Stenger critic Tom Sullivan filed a Sun-shine Law complaint with the state Monday against Page, alleging that the bill should have been filed with more notice to the public and to council members like Dolan.
But aside from Dolan, who has typically been an ally of Stenger, the budget brought the rest of the council together for perhaps the first time this year.
“When do you see a 3-3 split of Repub-licans and Democrats supporting the same thing anywhere in this polarized climate we’re in across the country?” said Chris Howard, Harder’s legislative assistant.
After a series of hearings with every department, the council cut $8 million from the Department of Public Health, $7.6 million from the Park Maintenance Fund, $6 million from the Special Road and Bridge Fund, $6.3 million from the General Fund and $3 million from the Highway Capital Construction Program.
Within the general fund, the council added $123,000 for Elections and cut $1.5 million from both Administration and Economic Development, along with $1.2 million from Human Services, $774,000 from Information Technology, $668,000 from Revenue, $375,000 from Planning, $345,293 from the county prosecutor, $204,000 from the county counselor, $198,599 from the county executive and $130,000 from municipal courts.
Budgets for the Police Department and almost all Prop P spending were untouched.
Cuts at the health department came with a council caveat that services could not be cut at health centers in north county.
The cuts shed light on a budgetary practice that had become common in the county. Typically, many county departments received more in appropriations than they actually spent each year, returning money to the general fund at the end of the year or rolling it over each year in their own budgets. In the meantime, they could potentially use the money for another purpose, circumventing the council.
“I know it is very different than how county government has run in the past,” Wasinger said of the changes.
One such project the council cited is $5.4 million slated for the renovation of Greensfelder Recreation Complex in Queeny Park, which Parks Director Gary Bess told the council would not happen next year, but in 2019. Bess told the council that another project leading to the new soccer park in Creve Coeur Park was not needed.
“I myself am not a big believer in paying for things I don’t need,” Trakas said.