County officials divided on how to spend $175 million in COVID-19 funds

St.+Louis+County+Council+Chairwoman+Lisa+Clancy%2C+D-Affton%2C+reacts+as+her+preferred+full+appropriation+of+coronavirus+funding+fails+to+move+forward+as+she+chairs+the+council+meeting+April+21.+

St. Louis County Council Chairwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Affton, reacts as her preferred full appropriation of coronavirus funding fails to move forward as she chairs the council meeting April 21.

By Gloria Lloyd, News Editor

With $175 million in hand in federal stimulus money for the coronavirus response,  St. Louis county government is deeply divided over how to decide how to spend it.

The federal government sent the money to St. Louis County by wire transfer April 22. It totals nearly a third of the county’s total budget for one year, and is meant to assist in the outbreak of COVID-19.

County Executive Sam Page and the Democratic four-member majority on the County Council all believe that the council should allow Page to have quick access to the money to provide for the needs of county residents during the coronavirus pandemic, without direct council approval of every single expenditure.

The three Republicans on the council, however, want the council to decide how the money is spent along the way. They refused to vote for the emergency bill last week that would have allowed Page the leeway to spend all the funds as needed.

The Democrats rejected on a 4-3 party line a compromise bill from 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, that would have given Page the authority to spend $43 million in emergency funds now, but come back to the council for how to spend the other $130 million.

Trakas said of the Republicans’ position, “This is about the fundamental operation of a democratic republic and the separation of powers…. This is not any sort of lack of trust, this is just being good government, doing exactly what not only we were elected to do but we swore an oath to do. The idea of giving up all oversight is anathema to me — we’re basically saying we’re irrelevant, that the people who put us there don’t matter. And I’m never going to sign off on that.”

Page and council Chairwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, emphasized that the ability to spend funds quickly and nimbly was key during the current crisis.

In a briefing with reporters April 20, Page said, “The County Council members have always been partners in how we make decisions in our communities — their opinions will always be important to me. I do believe that trickling this money out over weeks or trying to pass an appropriations bill for every expenditure is not responsible… This is not a traditional appropriations process where we can be leisurely.”

Clancy said that a crisis that is certainly out of the norm also requires a response that’s out of the norm, but she believes that given the history of the Republicans and their lack of agreement with the Democrats, decisions couldn’t be made quickly even with emergency meetings.

“If we don’t do this appropriation in this way this week, there is going to be a bloody fight very week on the council related to spending this money,” she said. “And that’s going to mean that people who need the resources because community members are dying are going to die quicker, or more people are going to die. And I cannot do that in good conscience.”

Both sides used the federal indictment of former County Executive Steve Stenger a year ago to make their case. Republicans said that’s why they must have more oversight, while Page said he worked to fight corruption and will transparently spend the money. The council elected Page to succeed Stenger as county executive.

When it came to Stenger, Page was an ally of all the Republicans on the council. Republicans say that whether or not they trust Page as an individual, they believe that handing oversight of $175 million in funds to one person is a bad idea. Page argued that the county debuted a “transparency portal” just after receiving the money that will track expenditures in real time, for all to see. He also said that the federal inspector general will be overseeing the money, which has to comply with federal guidelines for COVID-19 response.

But partisan divides that were exposed earlier this year with a resolution on abortion continued in a videoconferenced hearing and council meeting last week in which council members sparred with other council members, divided on party lines.

Before the county had the money in hand, 3rd District Councilman Tim Fitch, R-Fenton, offered a bill at the April 21 council meeting that would set aside $1.8 million to buy personal protective equipment for local first responders including police and fire departments, along with members of the community like grocery store workers and funeral home workers who may not have the masks or gear they need.

That amendment failed on a party-line vote that would have authorized the $1.8 million  as soon as it was passed, separate from the $175 million from the federal government.

“I can’t believe we’re voting against PPE,” said 7th District Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin. “I hope the people of our community remember this.”

Over Fitch’s objections, Clancy instead folded his $1.8 million community PPE appropriation into the Democrats’ bill to spend the entire $175 million.

The Republicans voted against the bill and Fitch’s included PPE amendment, and although Democrats hold the 4-3 majority on the council, a bill has to be unanimous to move to final passage in less than the typical three weeks called for by council rules. So the entire bill failed to pass and was set to be considered again Tuesday — after The Call went to press.

By the end of the week, as Page and council members traded appearances on radio shows, Page was inviting 2nd District Councilwoman Kelly Dunaway, D-Chesterfield, to appear alongside him at his morning briefing, and Clancy tweeted that she was going to appoint a special bipartisan committee to oversee the money that would be chaired by Dunaway.

Fitch tweeted, “We already have a ‘Committee’ that is bipartisan.  It’s called the County Council.  Another attempt to make it ‘appear’ the County Council has oversight.  We won’t. #RedHerring”

“People are stressed and emotions are running high,” Page said. “Sometimes we don’t always agree on things, but we don’t have to to move forward and take care of our community.”

Page has said that he wants to spend millions of dollars to buy thousands more tests for the coronavirus to help figure out how prevalent the virus is in the community and eventually be able to lift his current stay-at-home order, which is in effect indefinitely, but at least through mid-May. He also wants to hire 100 more people at $15 an hour to help the county Department of Public Health with contact tracing, or figuring out who people with COVID-19 have come in contact with.

Explaining how the new transparency portal works, Dunaway said, “You can count on the County Council to provide oversight and accountability.”