Police Association alleges council voted to ‘misappropriate’ Prop P tax on jail’s nurses

Pictured above is Steve Stenger and the County Council.

By Gloria Lloyd
News Editor
glorialloyd@callnewspapers.com

The St. Louis County Police Association promised to call out any elected officials that the police union saw misspending money from Proposition P, and the union has called out the County Council for the first alleged “misappropriation” of Prop P funds.

The Police Association is contending that raises for nurses who work at the Justice Center violate what voters intended for Prop P, which was primarily aimed at raising salaries of police officers.

They’ve also taken special aim at 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, who voted for the nurses’ raises to come from Prop P.

In an email and Facebook post, the union singled out Trakas, “who claims to be a Republican,” because he has “continually voted with liberal Democrats on the County Council to spread Prop P funds as far and wide as possible through county government.”

County Executive Steve Stenger, at podium, announces a new unit of the St. Louis County Police Department Tuesday, flanked by police Chief Jon Belmar to his right and officers of the new unit. Photo by Jessica Belle Kramer.

“The absurdity of their argument, I don’t even want to get into it,” Trakas said. “There’s no misappropriation, let’s put it that way. Not based on the language of Prop P.”

Even before the council approved the 2018 budget, workers from the Department of Justice Services began attending meetings asking for a raise similar to the Prop P-funded salary hikes received by police officers and other workers in the St. Louis County Police Department, which averaged 30 percent.

The council voted 6-1 May 9 to grant roughly $600,000 in raises to two sets of workers in the Justice Center who work one-on-one with inmates, guards and nurses. But the nurses are officially classified under the Department of Public Health, which is why county officials are feuding about whether those raises can legally come from Prop P.

Proposition P, a countywide sales tax intended to fund “police and public safety,” was marketed to voters primarily as a tax to fund raises for officers and improvements to the Police Department including two new police precincts.

But the funds were also used to grant raises to staffers in the county Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and higher-ups in Justice Services, which is what spurred the lower-level workers in the Justice Center to start attending nearly every council meeting last fall asking for raises.

Although the corrections officers began asking for the raises last year, the raises were not funded in the 2018 budget. Non-public-safety county employees have not had raises for years.

At a meeting early this year, Stenger and the council seemed to come to a rare moment of agreement when Stenger said he sided with the council that the raises were justified and should be granted. The two sides still agreed on that last week. But the two sides diverge on how to fund raises for around 40 nurses who officially work under the county Department of Public Health but in practice only work in the Justice Center with inmates.

Their medical supervisor asked the council to grant raises from Prop P.

Most of the council, with the exception of Dolan, believes the raises should be funded from Prop P since they believe the nurses fall under the public-safety provision. But the St. Louis County Police Association emailed the media objecting to raises for any health employees coming out of Prop P, even Justice Center nurses. Stenger and Dolan are siding with the police on the issue.

The council’s bill approving the raises is “invalid” and will not be enforced by the county, the county executive said at the May 22 council meeting. It is unclear what will happen to the raises. Stenger proposed an alternate bill that funds the guards’ raises out of Prop P funds and the nurses’ raises out of the health reserve, but 3rd District Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Huntleigh, said that she believes the county is deficit-spending already out of the health reserve and she doesn’t see that as a sustainable source for those raises.

Stenger said that future restructuring of the Health Department would make the raises sustainable. He has previously said that he is using attrition to downsize the number of county employees to save money.

“I made a pledge with respect to Proposition P,” Stenger said. “I don’t want to violate that pledge, and I also don’t want to cause us legal problems that we don’t need to have.”

Stenger and Trakas went head-to-head in the May 22 meeting over the raises, with Stenger interjecting as Trakas asked County Counselor Peter Krane what would happen with the bill the council passed 6-1.

“It’s not lawful,” Stenger said of the bill.

“Look, my question’s not directed to you, sir,” Trakas said.

Six of the seven council members “violated the public trust and passed a liberal spending bill” for the health employees, the Police Association said in a news release that called the decision a “misappropriation” like what the police union had pledged in advance of Prop P to call out.

Trakas previously voted for a bill sponsored by 7th District Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, referred to as the Prop P Accountability Ordinance.

“It took less than seven months for Councilman Trakas and five other council members to ignore that ordinance,” the police said. “Councilman Dolan was the only member of the County Council that did not violate the public trust. Dolan was the only one who is keeping his promise to the people of St. Louis County and being a good steward of taxpayer funds.”

Stenger and the police both say the Health Department reserve fund has enough money to fund the raises.

“There is no logical reason that public-safety funds should be used in this way,” the Police Association said. “This bill and this vote was political posturing at its finest. The County Council can claim that they are attempting to give raises to employees when knowing full well that this bill violates the county Charter.”

But Trakas said that there is no merit in the police union’s argument.

“They can blame or point fingers to whoever they want, but the problem that the police have is the vague language of Prop P to start with,” Trakas said. “It was common knowledge at the time that myself and other members of the council had concerns with the broad language contained in Prop P. That has now come home to roost.

“If Bob McCulloch’s secretaries can get a raise under Prop P, it is inconceivable to conclude that somehow nurses who work at the Justice Center every day face-to-face with hands on individuals that are charged with or convicted of felonies are not involved in public safety.”