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 officials delay annual appropriation to Bi-State Development Agency

Appropriation not delayed, county executive tells Call
Steve Stenger
Steve Stenger

The Bi-State Development Agency is currently running Metro buses and trains without payment from St. Louis County after county officials delayed approval of the county’s annual appropriations for the transportation agency’s operations.

The situation arose in part from the security issues facing the MetroLink light-rail system, which have caused ridership to fall 20 percent and fares to decline.

To make up for that loss in ridership, Bi-State requested a 7-percent hike in county funding this year.

But the county Public Transportation Commission approved $147 million instead of the $152 million Bi-State asked for, Bi-State President and CEO John Nations told the County Council in a hearing last week.

The agency only found out about the possible change last week, a month into its fiscal year that began July 1, Nations said. That’s not enough time to cut service if the county cuts the Bi-State budget.

“Technically what’s going on is we are providing service across St. Louis County that you’re not paying for at the moment,” Nations told county officials. “I can’t promise you I can deliver $152 million worth of service for $147 million.”

But County Executive Steve Stenger disputed that there is any delay from the county in approving transit funding, noting that most years the county has appropriated funding for Bi-State after July 1, including 19 of the last 22 years. The approval came on Sept. 27 last year and Aug. 18 the year before. Sometimes approval has come as late as December.

“The assertion that St. Louis County has delayed approval of Bi-State’s annual appropriation is simply not true,” Stenger said. “History proves that Bi-State funding has not been unusually delayed this year.”

Nations has not yet talked to Stenger about the funding, and only told the council Aug. 3, Stenger added.

The county executive said he plans to present his recommendation to the council at the Aug. 15 meeting, after the council’s recess this week.

In other years, however, the county has approved what Bi-State asked for and the transportation panel has weighed in with its approval in June, Nations said.

But the commission this year waited until July to approve a $5 million cut from what Bi-State requested.

Also new this year, new leadership of the Public Transportation Commission declined to meet with Bi-State in May to talk about the budget, as has been the custom for years, Nations said.

No one on the panel made a motion to approve the budget at the June meeting, before approving the lower amount July 11. Nations said he only found out about the lower request July 31.

The council will likely hold more hearings on the funding, but is waiting on Stenger’s bill, which would take at least a month to wind its way through the council, said council Chairman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur.

“I’m concerned that we have a public-safety problem, and the transportation committee has recommended cutting their budget, which really doesn’t make sense to me,” Page said. “I’m certainly concerned that the process to provide them with a budget has been delayed unlike any time in history.

“They need to know what their budget is so they can provide their services — rail, bus, public safety. I need to understand why there’s a recommendation to cut their budget.”

Bi-State’s requested budget did not include an extra $20 million for security the Bi-State board authorized in May after several high-profile violent incidents on trains and platforms. That amount covers the cost the board estimated it would take to add an armed security officer on every train and platform for all hours MetroLink is running, Nations said.

“At the end of the day we just want to be paid for our service,” Nations said.

But since Bi-State is already providing service at the $152 million level, that conversation needs to happen soon, he urged.

“The only thing they can really cut is bus service or security personnel, and I don’t think residents of the county want that,” Page said. “It’s a very difficult position.”

Progress on probe, Page says

The news about Bi-State funding came the week after the council passed a resolution urging an outside investigation into Bi-State allegations that St. Louis County Police Department officers working the MetroLink beat were covering surveillance cameras in a police substation and slacking on the job, including congregating in offices and texting, instead of policing the trains.

Stenger maintained that the resolution passed by the council could not force an outside investigation, and he preferred the probe be handled primarily through the current internal investigation by the SLCPD’s Bureau of Professional Standards.

Page, who drafted the resolution, has since talked with county Chief Jon Belmar about what steps to take toward an outside probe.

“We’re moving in a thoughtful way, and we’re continuing to have a discussion about what the best approach is,” Page said. “I’m going to be in conversation with the Police Board and the police chief about what an independent review looks like.”

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