Panel reviewing Dooley’s proposed 2012 budget to conduct second meeting

By MIKE ANTHONY

Executive Editor

A County Council committee that is reviewing County Executive Charlie Dooley’s proposed 2012 budget was scheduled to conduct its second meeting this week.

The Special Budget Committee appointed by County Council Chairman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, was set to meet Tuesday afternoon — after the Call went to press.

During the committee’s first meeting last week, members questioned how the administration formulated revenue and expenditure projections for 2012.

Dooley’s recommended 2012 budget calls for the closing of 23 county parks, eliminating 175 jobs and not plowing streets in unincorporated areas of snow when accumulations are 2 inches or less, among other things.

South county parks targeted for closing are Bohrer Park, Black Forest and Ohlendorf. In addition, the Kennedy Re-creation Complex pool would be closed.

Nearly all of the roughly 60 speakers who addressed the County Council during a public hearing last month on the proposed 2012 budget delivered the same message: Do not close any county parks nor lay off any Parks and Recreation Department employees.

In his budget message to Stenger and the County Council, Dooley, a Democrat, wrote that to balance the budget, he instructed staff “to reduce our general, road and bridge and parks budgets from an estimated $311 million — current service levels — to $301 million. Our projected revenue for 2012 is $285 million, which means that the remaining $16 million funding gap will need to be closed by using our reserve funds …”

But Stenger, an attorney and certified public accountant, citing the county’s own financial documents as evidence, contends the county is not in dire financial straits.

As a result, he appointed the Special Budget Committee to review Dooley’s recommended budget. The committee is chaired by County Council Vice Chairman Mike O’Mara, D-Florissant. Councilwoman Kathleen Burkett, D-Overland, is vice chair of the committee, which also includes Stenger and Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Town and Country.

“… Our goal here is to get through this,” O’Mara said at the committee’s first meeting on Nov. 21. “We’ve heard some rumblings about the parks. We’ve heard some rumblings about layoffs. Our goal here as council members is we want to keep our parks open. We want to keep the staff the way they are … At the same time, we want to have a sound budget for 2012 …”

Stenger said he would direct his questions primarily to the administration.

“… One of the places that I think that the money exists is on the revenue side,” he said. “I also think there’s money on the expense side as well. But I was reviewing our quarterly revenue report … I’m looking at the third-quarter report right now and it’s a report that was generated in November of 2011 for the third quarter and it shows the general funds revenues through the third quarter of 2011 were $141 million, which was a decrease of only $1.7 million — or 1.2 percent — compared to the same time period in 2010.

“And one of the things that I’m going to be interested in having is maybe a more detailed breakdown of where those numbers are derived because it would suggest that we have a decrease of $1.7 million, which is only 1.2 percent (less) compared with the same period in 2010. And 2010 we had $10.5 million more than expected and I gather that from the budget kickoff numbers that we had …”

Stenger also requested more information about the administration’s projection that 2011 property-tax revenues are estimated to be less than 2010 revenues.

“Also, that same report shows that — and I find it interesting that in the quarterly revenue report for quarter three, we have an addition from something that’s not normally there, at least it wasn’t there in quarters one through two, and that’s underlined. It says: ‘Overall, 2011 property tax revenues are estimated to be 4.5 percent lower than 2010 revenues,”’ he said. “And I would want to see exactly how that number was modeled or how it was derived because … that’s not what the prior numbers would seem to indicate for the prior quarters. And in that same paragraph, it talks about property tax revenues being $1.1 million or 6.9 percent higher than they were in 2010, which certainly wouldn’t seem to be indicative of a crisis to me.

“But nevertheless we’re here to find information and gather information. So I think on the revenue side, I have those questions. And then I have about 30 items that I’ve identified that could be looked into at a minimum for — on the expenditure side for savings. And I will submit that in writing because it’s very lengthy …”

Stenger also requested updated information on the number of employees hired in 2011, citing a presentation Budget Director Paul Kreidler made to the council.

“… Through that presentation we learned that at least through Sept. 7 of 2011, there had been 423 individuals hired. I went through the list and I calculated about 240 full-time new hires with the remainder being part time,” he said. “I’d like to get that same figure through the current date and also another area that I wanted to talk about (was) 323 open positions and they are open positions that are funded, but they have not been filled with an employee.

“And I’d like to get that same number for the current date. I think that was as of Sept. 7 as well …”

Noting the average cost, including benefits, of a full-time employee is $66,000, Stenger said, “… It’s like $21 million if you figured it at $66,000 per (full-time) employee … If we could get that exact figure, I mean that would go quite a long way toward discussing a balanced budget as well.”

Regarding revenues, Wasinger noted that the administration is projecting increases in sales, casino and fuel taxes for 2011 compared to last year.

“… In terms of budgeting for anticipated revenues and expenses next year, which is what we’re doing now with the 2012 budget, I know you have to come up with these estimates based on reasonable data. My question is why would we have a zero-percent increase for sales, casino taxes and the fuel taxes you did move up a little bit — why do we go at it from that angle when we could reasonably expect that to increase and then a small adjustment in that amount would bring in a lot of revenue for budget preparations …,” she said.

County Chief Operating Officer Garry Earls said, “Well, under sales taxes, I think this is a summary of budgeted receipts in all budgeted funds. So that includes several funds that are specifically set aside like children’s service fund and emergency communications and the Metro sales tax, which (are) not available for us to use for the general fund expenses of the government.”

Wasinger said, “OK. So if you back that out, year to date it’s approximately a 5.2- percent increase in sales tax based on this report here …”

Earls said, “… We have nine months of the year data today and what we believe to be true is comparing year over year, we’re expecting that our current estimate of revenue for the general services sales taxes, the 1-percent sales tax … we expect that to be up some, but it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of $300,000 or $400,000 if, in fact, our optimistic estimate on the high side, if that comes through. One of the reasons is last year we had extraordinarily high revenue in December that we really don’t expect again this year …”

Wasinger later said, “… For purposes of budgeting, though, you are very conservative, which generally I think is a good concept. However …”

Earls interjected that the St. Louis County Charter mandates conservative budget projections.

Wasinger said that she was encouraging the administration to be “cautiously optimistic” in its revenue projections for the coming year.

“… We have to be obviously prudent and we don’t want to over-project revenue and end up short at the end of the year,” she said. “I know that’s a real concern, but I think it’s something that we can fairly look at and still achieve the objective of being conservative, but allowing our parks to stay open and retaining those employees …”

Wasinger later noted the county’s health fund boasts a 36-percent reserve and suggested that a penny or two from the health fund tax levy could be moved to the parks tax levy, if necessary.

But Earls later said, “… The health fund actually has a bigger structural deficit percentwise than the other funds. So we’re drawing down the health fund faster than the other funds. So our current estimate of revenue in the health fund next year — $44 (million) and our expected spending is $50 (million). So that $6 million structural deficit will certainly put the health fund in a tough spot by 2014, 2015 …”

Moving part of the health fund tax levy to the parks fund is not a prudent way “to manage the health care of our citizens in St. Louis County for the future. To take away health resources and spend it on parks, that comparison is we always end up on health. So when you talk about priorities, our priority is going to be health over parks and we admit that …,” he added.

Just before the meeting was adjourned, Wasinger asked Earls, “… Are you prepared to make adjustments to the recommended budget?”

Earls said, “… It depends on what those proposals are. We’re certainly ready to respond …”

Wasinger interjected, “Are you willing to work — I mean is there going to be a give and take here …”

Earls said, “If you schedule a meeting at midnight on Sunday, we will have a full staff here to respond …”

Wasinger said, “Well, I’m thankful for that, but I would also like to know you that are committed to working with us so we do not have to accept this budget.”

Earls said, “We’re committed to working with you, yes, ma’am.”