Jessica Belle Kramer
By Gloria Lloyd
County Executive Steve Stenger said last week that he will not veto the County Council’s plan to cut his recommended spending in 2019 by $35 million in what amount to budget cuts on paper, including $4.8 million from the county Police Department.
The council met the deadline to pass a budget by its last meeting of the year.
And for the second year in a row, the council cut the rollover funds that have historically been built into county budgets but not usually spent, a practice that predates Stenger as county executive.
In 2017, county departments returned about 9.3 percent of the budget as unspent. The council’s move balances the budget on paper but doesn’t address the larger problem of the structural imbalance in the general fund.
Stenger recommended $664 million in appropriations, officially down 15 percent from the $786 million the county spent in 2018. But the 2019 number does not include funding for Metro, which will be decided midyear during Metro’s budget cycle. Metro took $162 million from the county budget last year.
Stenger also restored the rollover funding the council cut last year.
The county budget is balanced as a whole, but Stenger’s recommended budget showed a $10 million deficit in operational spending that eats through reserves.
“Like a lot of government entities, the idea is let’s get appropriated as much as we can and if we don’t spend, that’s our benchmark the following year,” said 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville. “We’ve gotten to a point in the county now where that’s no longer tenable. We’re going to burn through our reserves, which is going to affect our bond rating.”
In the general fund that governs most of that operational spending and about half the budget, Stenger recommended $318 million in spending, compared to $309 million in actual 2018 spending.
The council’s budget takes that number down to $302 million. Council members added $519,306 to their own budget while decreasing the Police Department by $4.8 million, St. Louis Economic Development Partnership by $3.6 million, information technology by $3 million, administration by $1.17 million, Public Works by $1 million, Revenue by $1 million and Human Services by $880,277.
The council trimmed $6.2 million from parks, $5.5 million from highways, $5.5 million from health and $1.8 million from roads and bridges.
Although the general fund has been propped up by an influx of money from Proposition P, the half-cent countywide sales tax that went into effect a year ago, the other funds in the general fund are running deficits due to not bringing in as much revenue as expenses, including the road and bridge fund, the health fund and the parks fund.
Stenger had been largely absent from the conversation about his own budget, since he has missed most council meetings since he was re-elected in November. His Chief of Staff Bill Miller called the cuts a “breach of public trust” in a statement.
But in an unusual Twitter exchange with a reporter and in a radio interview last week, Stenger went on the offensive to dispute council members’ claims about what they call his “train wreck” of a budget.
“It is a 9.5 million dollar issue which does not justify 32 million in cuts with an axe,” Stenger tweeted. “You empower ridiculous behavior with propaganda.”
In a radio appearance, he disputed that the deficit was as big of an issue as council members were making it and suggested they were “into doing what is best for themselves as opposed to doing what is really in the best interest of St. Louis Countians,” may not have an understanding of financial matters and have a case of “political spitefulness.”
First, the deficit has been exaggerated and the overall budget is balanced, he said. As he said last year, he feels the problem in the general fund can be fixed by cutting 122 positions through attrition, and it’s better to do that slowly so that it doesn’t affect any services to residents.
“It’s about a $9.5 million issue on about a $700 million budget overall,” he said, later adding, “We presented a balanced budget, we have a plan to repair a minor hole in one of the buckets, and it’s really a gross overreaction.”
He pledged not to raise taxes. And he also disagreed with characterizations of the latest budget votes as a “budget battle.”
“It’s somewhat disingenuous to call it a ‘budget battle’ because there really is no battle from the executive branch,” Stenger said. “Perhaps the County Council is attempting to have a battle not really with me, but I think they’re going to find on their hands a battle with department heads and it sounds like a real battle with our Police Department.”
He said that the council has “authority envy” and wants to micromanage department heads by requiring them to repeatedly come to the council, hat in hand.
The council has only funded the Economic Development Partnership on a quarterly basis, which isn’t realistic for an agency with full-time employees, Stenger said.
“In a sense they want these department heads to come to them throughout the year and beg them for checks,” Stenger said. “And that isn’t going to happen.”
In another radio interview, 7th District Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, said, “What we’re not going to do is give ‘em a blank check and say ‘Spend what you need, and we want you to bring some of that back at the end of the year.’ It’s a shell game with the money.”