South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

County Council set to examine the budget and try to give staff a raise

County Executive Steve Stenger, second from left, listens to Rep. Bob Burns, D-Affton, address the council last year, left to right: 5th District Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, Chairman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, 1st District Councilwoman Hazel Erby and 4th District Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray, D-Black Jack. Photo by Gloria Lloyd.

By Gloria Lloyd
News Editor 

With two new members in the new year, the County Council will try to figure out how to balance the county budget while possibly giving employees a 2.8-percent cost-of-living raise.

Employees have had no raises in the last eight out of 10 years.

The council plans to hold a series of hearings throughout the first quarter of 2019 to examine the budget and see “every effort made to find efficiencies and savings” that can avoid service cuts, said 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville.                  

At the Call’s press time, no hearings had been scheduled yet.

The council is considering legislation sponsored by 4th District Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray, D-Black Jack, that would give employees an across-the-board raise. The price tag for that could run into the millions.

In one of her last meetings after a dozen years on the council, 3rd District Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Huntleigh, said, “We are deficit spending to an unacceptable level, and we can’t keep kicking the can down the road. It’s an unfortunate situation, but it’s got to be addressed.”

Trakas agreed, “This isn’t something where we can just do nothing, wait till the end of ’19 and the message is sent out that the sky is falling and now we have to raise taxes. I’m not comfortable with that, and neither is everyone on the council.”

Once the budget is downsized, council members can talk about raises, he said.

For the second year in a row, the council rejected County Executive Steve Stenger’s proposed budget, which included about 5 percent in “rollover funds” — money that was appropriated to departments every year but typically returned unspent. The council cut $35 million that likely would not have been spent anyway, balancing the budget on paper.

Stenger called the council’s cuts “reckless,” pointing out that council members cut other departments while increasing their own budget by $500,000. His Chief of Staff Bill Miller called the cuts a “violation of public trust.”

Stenger said in a statement, “As we did last year in response to reckless council cuts and a budgetary increase for itself, we will all live within our means. We will responsibly do the hard work to execute a budget based on those cuts.”

In Stenger’s budget memo, he said that looking at how to fix the budget in 2019 “should not wait.”

Ernie Trakas

Although Trakas repeatedly called Stenger’s budget a “train wreck,” he agreed with county Budget Director Paul Kreidler that the issue has been coming down the pike for the last decade, “kicking the can down the road” as both Wasinger and 7th District Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, said.

“I’m not going to hang this around Steve Stenger’s neck exclusively — I think this has been business as usual for decades,” Trakas said. “That’s what happens when — Councilman Harder used the term ‘kick the can down the road’ — well, at some point you’re at the end of the road, and that’s where we are now. And fortunately, frankly, we now have a council that is engaged, that understands the problem and is prepared to assert its authority under the Charter. County residents are very, very fortunate and blessed to have a council that is as engaged and assertive as this one has evolved into.”

A cut of $4.8 million from the St. Louis County Police Department struck a nerve with the police union and administration because they believed the money was earmarked for the 50 new officers for two-officer cars promised under the new countywide public-safety sales tax Proposition P.

But Trakas said every department will be looked at for savings, including police.

He noted that even as the department had more than 100 unfilled positions, spending on unscheduled overtime topped $2 million.

“He can fill those positions and find the savings somewhere else,” Trakas suggested. “…. Quite frankly, this is a burden that has to be borne by everyone in the county, meaning county government, not taxpayers. We didn’t carve out any special exceptions for any entities except a few small bits.”

But the council hopes not only to balance the budget with current tax rates and services without budget cuts, but also find enough money in the budget to offer raises.

To do that, Trakas envisions the new set of hearings as “more substantive” than the council’s dozens of budget hearings with each department this fall.

The council will look at eliminating unfilled positions or making programs or services more efficient in some way to prevent raising the tax rate, Trakas said.

As for a tax increase, Trakas said, “I don’t think it’s worth considering until we have made every reasonable effort to find every efficiency we can.”

Although Stenger said the rollover funds were needed, Trakas pointed out that not a single department head came back to the council to ask for more money.

Another factor weighing in to the budget discussion are county employees, who started going to the council in waves this year asking for raises. Adding to the imbalance is the fact that employees related to police and public safety received raises under Prop P while employees in other departments received no raises.

Abstaining on every single budget bill in protest, 1st District Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, said the budget should have been slashed even more.

“I still don’t see where this administration is being cut enough to give our employees raises — we have salaries that are out of the wazoo in the county executive’s office, the problems with the Economic Partnership, the Port Authority, all of those things influence my decision to not vote in favor of this budget,” she said.

In Wasinger’s last meeting, she said, “I hope the council is able to find a way to get the employees that much deserved merit pay raise.”

But Trakas said that aside from the cost-of-living increase, it would have to be mid- to late 2019 before any larger raise could be considered for county employees.

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