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With no big surprises, St. Louis County budget may breeze through this year

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - St. Louis County Executive Charile Dooley's new budget includes another round of raises for county employees and a slew of capital improvement projects for parks.

With no major cuts on the horizon, at least two members of the St. Louis County Council expect this year's budgetary process to be relatively uneventful.

Dooley sent the county’s 2014 budget to the St. Louis County Council last week. That starts the roughly two-month process to approve the document before the last day of the county’s fiscal year – Dec. 31.

Dooley proposed roughly $396 million for the county’s “general funds,” which incorporate the county’s primary operating fund, road and bridge fund, health fund and parks maintenance fund. That’s a roughly 3.9 percent increase from 2013’s adjusted budget, which turned out to be about $381 million.

In a cover letter to council members, Dooley wrote, “Our perseverance and frugality have paid off, and we find ourselves in a position where our expenses remain in line with projected revenues.”

The budget, he wrote, “provides the funding required for delivering essential services to the citizens of St. Louis County and making strategic investments, while also setting aside sufficient unappropriated fund balances to safeguard our ‘AAA’ bond rating.”

“This spending plan will set the stage for our continued efforts to work together with other governments in the region to sustain St. Louis County as the economic engine of the state,” he wrote.

Dooley’s proposed budget also includes:

  • $6.7 million to pay for raises. That’s a bigger increase than last year’s budget, which included $5.4 million for boosts in pay.
  • $3.1 million more for facility maintenance, including roof replacements, elevator upgrades and safety system improvements.
  • $3 million for additional maintenance and improvement of country roads.
  • $1 million for “E-Poll Book” voter identification technology.
  • $1 million to demolish vacant buildings.

After Tuesday’s council meeting, Dooley said this year’s budget is “going to make an investment in St. Louis County infrastructure.” He specifically noted that the $1 million for demolition would go “to tear down old houses or dilapidated houses or bad shopping centers.”
One of the reasons the budget doesn’t make any cuts, he said, is that sales taxes revenue is trending upward.

“We’re doing a lot of things that are data-driven for our community,” Dooley said. “So we’re doing a lot of good things.”

Prop P money comes in

The other big takeaway from the budget is more than $6 million in new funds for capital improvement projects at St. Louis County’s park system.

That money stems from Proposition P, a voter-approved initiative that included funding for regional trails, city parks and a project to spruce up the Gateway Arch. The county began collecting proceeds from the 3/16ths of one-cent sales tax increase in October.

Dooley said in his letter that proceeds from the county’s share of that tax is estimated to bring $6.1 million in “new annual revenue for the department.”

“These funds will be put to work immediately to address many of the improvements which had been delayed due to the recession and to offer new amenities to the community,” Dooley said.

Some of the park-related capital improvement projects detailed in the county’s budget summary include:

  • $48,400 for replacement of HVAC units.
  • $597,800 for playground repair or replacement around the county
  • Installing a dog park at Queeny Park
  • Replacing roofs at Jefferson Barracks and Faust Parks, as well as the Affton Community Center, Kennedy Recreation Complex and three Laumeier Sculpture Park shelters.

Earlier this year, acting parks director Tom Ott told the Beacon that his department would use the Prop P proceeds “to do a lot of repairs and replacements in the things we already have.”

He noted that the 63-year-old department features facilities built in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, adding that “we’re going to look at the age, the safety of the equipment or the condition of the equipment and prioritize our projects.”

Tranquil process ahead?

After Tuesday’s meeting, two council members of the council hinted that this year’s budgetary process might be as tranquil as it was last year.  

Council Chairwoman Kathleen Kelly Burkett, D-Overland, told reporters that she hasn’t gone “line-by-line” through the budget. But she said she was “very pleased” with Dooley’s cover letter.

“One of the reasons that we are able to give raises and do the things we’re going to be able to do with this budget is because we had to tighten the belt during hard fiscal times,” Burkett said. “And now, things are looking better.”

Councilman Greg Quinn, R-Ballwin, also said he was still in the process of reviewing the budget. But he added that from reading Dooley’s cover letter, this year’s budget didn’t feature any big surprises.

“It’s similar in a lot of ways to what was done last year,” Quinn said. “But I always go through and see if there are any ways we can make it a little bit more efficient. But right now I haven’t gotten any ideas.”  

Burkett said that members of the council will hold a public meeting on budget on Nov. 19, as is required by the county charter.  But ultimately, council members have fairly limited power to make changes to the budget. The charter only allows the council to approve or disapprove the entire budget – they cannot alter individual line items.

Still, the council has convinced Dooley’s administration to make changes to the budget in the last two years. Most notably in 2011, the council forced Dooley to pull back from a proposal to shut down half of the county’s parks. They also convinced Dooley to make relatively few changes last year.

Quinn said that any changes asked for in the budget would likely be fairly minor. “I don’t think there are going to be a lot of wholesale changes; there may be a few tweaks here and there,” he added.

And Burkett added she hasn’t heard any consternation from her fellow council members.

“I don’t know what they should be upset about,” she said. “From the cover letter that the county executive provided, it looks real good to me.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.