Stenger urges citizens to voice budget concerns directly to Dooley

Cuts of ‘a significant nature’ are necessary, county executive states in budget message

By MIKE ANTHONY

County Council Chairman Steve Stenger is urging south county residents to voice their displeasure directly to County Executive Charlie Dooley over cuts Dooley’s administration is proposing in the 2012 county budget.

Stenger, a Democrat from Affton who represents the 6th County Council District, is unconvinced of the need for any cuts and last week formed a Special Budget Committee to review the Dooley administration’s proposed 2012 budget that calls for the closing of 23 county parks, job cuts and not plowing streets in unincorporated areas of snow when accumulations are 2 inches or less.

Asked if he would encourage residents to attend council meetings to voice their displeasure with the proposed budget, Stenger told the Call, “I’ll tell you what, I would encourage them to contact Charlie Dooley. That’s what I would encourage them to do and voice their discontent because they need to know — I think that the administration needs to know just how our district feels about this.”

A public hearing on the proposed 2012 county budget will be conducted at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 15, in the County Council chamber at the Administration Building, 41 S. Central Ave., Clayton.

In his budget message to Stenger and the County Council, Dooley, a Democrat, wrote that the proposed 2012 county budget “concedes to the difficult fiscal reality of our time … Since 2009, the national economy has suffered more than at any other time since the Great Depression. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs. Millions more are underemployed and struggling to keep a roof over their families’ heads. Housing and commercial real-estate values have simultaneously fallen while the cost of food and fuel has steadily increased

“Locally, these realities have been felt all too keenly,” Dooley continued. “County government has also been impacted with key revenues falling since 2008. Compared to 2012 budget estimates, property-tax revenues are down by 10.3 percent and sales-tax revenues are down by 6.4 percent.

“By freezing salaries, reducing new hires and insisting on minimal to zero-growth spending over the past three years, St. Louis County has done its best to proactively operate within these constraints. We must take more dramatic action now. Like many, I had hoped we could persevere until the dark clouds in the economy cleared. It has become evident that the economic downturn is not just a passing storm, but it is our new reality,” the budget message stated.

“Bluntly stated, we must make cuts of a significant nature,” Dooley wrote. “With our sales-tax and property-tax revenues stalled, I cannot in good conscience continue to rely solely on St. Louis County’s ‘rainy-day’ reserves to maintain our levels of service. Recent revenue infusions such as the one-time cell phone settlement and the opening of the River City Casino do not solve our future funding problems. At the same time, the public has plainly communicated its opposition to tax increases.

“Consequently, this budget will eliminate 175 county jobs, reduce services at 23 parks and other public facilities, increase certain fees and reduce other services,” the county executive wrote. “All combined, these measures will generate $10 million in savings in the 2012 budget compared to the estimated costs of maintaining current services levels.”

To balance the budget, Dooley wrote that 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. We must continue our austere measures through 2012 to avoid depleting our reserves any further. I anticipate having to make similarly painful decisions for 2013 and perhaps 2014.”

In August, Dooley had proposed rolling up the county’s property tax rate by 2.3 cents.

But Dooley withdrew that proposal in early September in the wake of criticism, particularly from Stenger, an attorney and a certified public accountant, who disputed Dooley’s comments to local media that the county would face a “crisis” and have to lay off employees if the tax rate were not increased.

In his budget message, Dooley noted he had suggested rolling up the tax rate.

“Although my delivery of that message could have been better, my reasons for pursuing the additional funds are reflected in this budget. Without additional revenue, costs — in the form of staff and services — will have to be eliminated,” he wrote.

But Stenger, citing the county’s own financial documents as evidence, contends the county is not in dire financial straits. He pointed to a quarterly financial report that stated the county collected roughly $15.7 million in property-tax revenue through the second quarter of 2011 — $1.2 million, or 8.3 percent, ahead of property-tax revenues for the first two quarters of 2010.

The report also stated general revenues through the second quarter of 2011 totaled $89 million, running $824,000 — or 0.9 percent — behind 2010 general revenues.

In addition, Stenger referenced a 2012 “budget kickoff” presentation that reported total 2010 county revenues were $10.5 million more than expected. Further, the sum of the county’s four general fund balances was $82.5 million at the end of 2010, the document stated.

“… Now that was just at the end of June. So think of July and think of this crisis they’re claiming now and the crisis that they were claiming what would have been two months later at the end of August because that’s when he (Dooley) started crying foul: Oh, we’re in a crisis …”

Stenger said the budget kickoff document did not include any mention of layoffs, only what were termed “spending pressures.”

One of those spending pressures was a pay increase for county employees totaling $4 million to $6 million.

“But those are just pressures. They’re not saying: Crisis, the sky is falling. We need to raise taxes. They’re not saying anything. But it’s really important to note that that pay increase is in there and there’s nothing about a tax increase. And they were contemplating back at the end of June they would get a pay increase for people and they would do it within the existing budget and it was merely a pressure — not a crisis, not something that was going to require a tax increase — nothing,” he said, adding the kickoff document referenced a “zero-growth” budget for next year.

“… They weren’t calling for cuts across the board. They weren’t calling for park closures. They weren’t calling for anything …,” Stenger said. “At this point here, they hadn’t asked us for a tax increase. They didn’t know if they were going to get a tax increase, is my point, and they were saying all these things. They didn’t mention a tax increase in here and they’re talking about a zero-growth budget. They never mentioned — they have yet to mention that they made some mistake in their initial calculations. They’ve not said anything of the kind. So the only thing I can surmise is at some point, they wanted a tax increase. They didn’t get it and now they’re holding these various services hostage …

“First, we have parks they’re going to close down. They’re talking about laying off employees and then they’re talking about not providing the basic service of plowing snow when the snow hasn’t accumulated to certain inches in unincorporated areas and our district, the 6th District, is 98 percent unincorporated,” he continued. “So what I would encourage our residents to do is to not take this sitting down. I know I’m not going to. This has got me going …”

Another indication the county’s financial situation is not critical is the administration’s hiring practices, Stenger contended.

A total of 423 people have been hired by the administration from Jan. 1 through Sept. 7 of this year, he said, estimating that with the exception of roughly 10 of those people, the remainder were “executive branch” hires — both full time and part time.

“… What the administration uses to figure for a cost for each employee is about $66,000 when you consider benefits as well …,” Stenger said, noting 241 of those hires were full-time employees — a total of roughly $15.9 million. “… That’s not part-time hires yet. That’s just full-time hires … Well, that’s $15 million worth of hires. If we were in a budget crisis so badly that we had to lay people off at the end of the year, why did we hire 423 people? And it’s not like it’s for pennies, it’s for tens of millions of dollars … Why did they do that?

“And then they’re talking about cutting our services. Cutting our essential services. Cutting our beautiful parks. Selling our parks. Selling the animals. I mean, man, this is for real. I mean this is scary. I mean that is scary to me that they are employing this logic and thinking that people are going to fall for it … It’s inconceivable.”

Stenger also noted the county currently has roughly 362 budgeted positions that are vacant. At an estimated $66,000 per position, he said, “… They have $24 million of bunk in the budget — bunk, bunk. That’s baloney. That’s just money that is never going to be used that their budgets are puffed up by, that they have essentially to play with if they want to put people in there, if they want to hire people …”

The council chairman also cited what he termed “political hires,” including three employees hired by County Assessor Jake Zimmerman and others with ties to Dooley.

“… We also know that Jake Zimmerman hired three political hires that have nothing to do with assessments but are ‘community outreach’ and ‘communication,’ which is doing nothing but building a bureaucracy in the assessor’s office. We have Charlie Dooley’s political hires. We know what they were. They were nearly a million dollars spent on political hires by Charlie, nearly $500,000 spent by Jake Zimmerman. If we start talking about laying off maintenance workers who have been in the county for their careers — we’re talking working-class people — and you start talking about park rangers being laid off, if you ask me to choose between those people and these political hires, those political hires are going first. That’s the way it has to be. It’s so unfair to hire your friend and then fire your career professional staff at the expense of your friend. It can’t happen. I mean it’s just not going to …”

Regarding the Special Budget Committee that he formed last week, Stenger said, “… I formed that to get down to the truth about the budget and what is really going on here, and to answer some fundamental questions. And one of my fundamental questions is: What does the administration really want? What are they really after? Because we’re not being told. First of all, there’s no reason to raise taxes … Are we running with a smaller government?

“Yes. I don’t see that as a bad thing. But we’ve been running on that for a while now. We don’t need to make any cuts, and I think their projections are incorrect. I don’t think their projections are based on the objective facts and the objective numbers, and I think we are headed for a real showdown here. And it’s really going to be the facts versus fiction is what I think this really boils down to, and I think that the facts are going to win out.”

The Special Budget 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.

The committee is scheduled to meet at 4 p.m. Monday, Nov. 21.

As council chairman, Stenger said he meets pretty much on a weekly basis with Dooley.

“… I was never told we were in a budget crisis. I was not ever told by him we were in a budget crisis,” Stenger said, adding he learned about the proposed layoffs and cuts in services from media accounts. “I mean I’m the chairman of the St. Louis County Council, a county of a million people and this is the professionalism level that we’re getting from the government that they don’t advise the council who makes the appropriations that we’re in some kind of crisis — if we were even in a crisis, which I don’t believe we’re in.”