By Gloria Lloyd
County Executive Steve Stenger delivered his $696 million recommended 2018 county budget to the County Council last week, the first budget that incorporates money from the Proposition P sales tax that dramatically increases spending for the Police Department.
The council plans to expand the number of hearings held on the budget this year, starting with a committee meeting focused on Prop P spending Wednesday — after the Call went to press.
The council will conduct its annual budget hearing Tuesday, Nov. 14, at 6:30 p.m., or as soon as the 6 p.m. council meeting ends, in the County Council Chambers, 41 S. Central Ave., Clayton.
All budget documents are posted on the county’s website on its transparency portal, which Stenger implemented when he came to office. On the accountability portal, residents can sift through the budget line item by line item.
In Stenger’s budget message last year that predated voter approval of Prop P, which funds more officers on the street and higher police salaries, he warned that county taxpayers could face hard choices in the future to either cut programs or find new sources of revenue to fund increasingly tight county budgets.
The 2018 budget is funded with $763 million in overall revenue, but has an operating deficit of $14 million, or 4.5 percent, following a trend that began in 2014.
Although Prop P largely resolved the issue of pay raises for police and Justice Center employees, non-public safety employees will see their salaries frozen for the third year in a row if the recommended budget is approved. The county implemented a pay freeze after the Great Recession from 2009 to 2012, then again in 2016 and this year. Salaries comprise 46 percent of the overall budget, just above public safety at 34 percent.
Half of the county budget is funded by nine sales taxes and 15 percent by property taxes. County officials have warned for months that sales taxes are running below expectations this year, but overall sales-tax revenues will be up $55 million or 7.8 percent next year due to Prop P. Officials predict property taxes will stay flat this year. The tax rate for homeowners has not been increased since 1984.
Five-year forecasts project that if no changes are made to expenses or revenues, the county will increasingly make ends meet by digging into reserves, drying up those funds completely by 2022.
Among hundreds of pages of budget documents released to the council last week, 6th District Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, said what jumped out at him was the “almost astounding” paragraph focusing on the county’s future fund balances.
“That should give most people pause — what it means is that it’s not a very efficiently run entity,” Trakas said. “We can’t just continue to operate the way things are operated. In essence, what it says is that we’re spending more than we’re bringing in, there’s little chance that revenue is going to increase, and so absent some change either in revenue or services and programs, the county’s upside down by 2019. If not already.”
The reserve fund is falling from $43.4 million or 18.3 percent at the end of 2016 to $31.5 million or 10.9 percent next year, then $4.5 million or 1.5 percent in 2021, far below the county’s target of 10 percent. The five-year plan shows the reserve falling into the red by $9.5 million in 2022, but “in reality this cannot occur,” the budget states.
County revenues have stayed flat after the Great Recession while expenses have been increasing. But “all of that is true for every business in America,” Trakas said.
The county either has to live within its means or cut programs or services, he added. Or it could raise taxes, “which I’m not advocating by any means,” he said.
The operating fund is increasingly being eaten up by county pensions. A report from the county projected that without structural changes to the county retirement system, pensions could grow to $90 million of the county’s $700 million budget by 2027.
The council dropped a proposal from Stenger in September that would have restructured pensions for new employees to require more years until they are vested and require a pension contribution from employees themselves. County officials project the changes could save the county $300 million over the next 30 years.
Prop P budget scrutinized
Prop P went into effect Oct. 1, so the county has not yet received any funds from it. The estimated $46 million in annual Prop P funds will be tracked as a separate line item in the budget. The county allocates $38 million of the money this year for initiatives and new police officers, saving the rest to potentially add money to the county retirement fund if needed or in case the sales tax doesn’t generate as much revenue as expected.
At a hearing earlier this fall about Prop P, Erby and 4th District Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray, D-Black Jack, asked county Budget Director Paul Kreidler if Stenger’s budget could be given to them earlier than the county Charter-mandated date of Nov. 1 so that they could have more time to examine it.
But county officials are working on the budget and incorporating more up-to-date information up until the release date, Kreidler noted.
“I asked can we have the budget come down before we actually vote on anything, can we be a part of it?” Erby said. “And we’re not. We’re not part of the process.”
Erby believes the Prop P budget should emphasize training for de-escalation, which she thinks would have been useful during the protest and arrests at the St. Louis Galleria mall in Richmond Heights in September.
In the budget Belmar set out for voters and Stenger released last week, the chief asks for $18.6 million in pay raises for current police officers, $9.9 million to hire 114 more officers, $1 million for police training, $623,000 for body cameras, $114,000 for juvenile treatment services, $2.5 million for average 16-percent raises for Justice Center employees and $2 million to hire more county prosecutors and give existing ones raises.
To read the budget and see more details from the Proposition P spending plan, check back to www.callnewspapers.com.