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Before crowd of police, St. Louis County Council backs pay increases

County police and their families help pack the room as the County Council considers a police pay raise.
Jo Mannies/St. Louis Public Radio

Updated Oct. 31, 2017: Before a packed crowd, the St. Louis County Council gave final approval to a pay hike for county police beginning Jan. 1.  The vote of 6-0, with one absent, came after no debate. The result touched off lots of applause from police and their families packing the audience.

Our earlier story:

The St. Louis County Council got an earful Tuesday before members unanimously gave initial approval to a measure increasing county police pay beginning Jan. 1.  

For almost two hours, council members heard mainly from St. Louis County police officers and their families concerned that the pay hike might be blocked by a pension dispute between Council Chairman Sam Page and County Executive Steve Stenger. 

Page denied any such plan. “The discussion of the pension has been politicized,” said Page, D-Creve Coeur.

But Stenger credited the police with preventing any possible council delay. “I think the officers tonight expressed a lot of reasonable concerns and thoughts, and it was good to hear them,” Stenger said after the vote.

Both Democrats, Page and Stenger have been battlingover a number of issues. Page is now the leader of a four-member council bloc that has opposed a number of Stenger proposals. Since four votes are needed to pass something out of the seven-person council, that coalitions wields a lot of clout.

The police pay increases are covered by Proposition P, a half-cent sales tax hike that voters approved in April. But Page has raised concerns that the pay hikes – which will cost the county about $17 million next year – will require increased spending for their pensions.

Right before the vote, Page revised the bill to require that 15 percent of the county's new Prop P money go toward higher pension costs. Stenger said afterwards that he didn’t object. He said his administration already had planned to set aside about 20 percent – roughly $10 million.

Stenger said most of the council had known of his plans for some time, but that he wasn’t going to haggle because he wasn't opposed to Page’s substitute. Page contended that Stenger’s staff had declined to provide adequate information about the pension issue.

“We were all in favor of the pay increases,” Page said. “The issue we have before us is whether or not the pension liability has been appropriately estimated.”

The council's vote touched off cheers and a standing ovation from the uniformed police and their allies in the audience. The council's final vote on the matter is slated for Oct. 31.

Proposition P is expected to bring in about $80 million a year. About $46 million will go to St. Louis County’s police department for higher pay, more equipment and additional training.  Much of the remaining $34 million will go to municipal police departments throughout the county.

Earlier Tuesday, Stenger signed a bill aimed at helping officials and the public track how the Proposition P money is spent.  Stenger said Prop P's allocations will be listed separately in the proposed county budget that he will be submitting by Nov. 1.

Drama over Page’s texts that went astray

Before the meeting, the county council’s Justice and Health Committee held a public hearing on the response of police departments to ongoing protests over a judge’s decision to acquit former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley of first-degree murder in the death of Anthony Lamar Smith. The county police department didn't send representatives to the hearing. 

But most of the council speakers followed the lead of Matt Crecelius, a county police officer who’s also business manager for the St. Louis County Police Association.

Like other speakers on Tuesday, Crecelius urged the council to avoid delaying a vote on the pay raises. He also took verbal aim at Page by highlighting a political controversy over several text messages about the police pay matter that the council chairman sent Tuesday — to the wrong person.

In the texts, Page explained his plan to earmark 15 percent of the Prop P funds for pensions.  “That’s probably all I can do,’’ Page wrote. “Otherwise we are just making Stenger look like a hero. We can’t get our message out if the police don’t care…”

The texts had been intended to go to Garry Earls, the county’s former chief operating officer under then-County Executive Charlie Dooley. Earls often attends council meetings. And when he was working for Dooley, Stenger called for Earls' resignation after it was revealed a health department employee embezzled money.

But Page instead sent the texts to county parks director Gary Bess, who then forwarded them to Stenger’s office.  The county executive said he read the texts, but demurred – with a chuckle -- when asked to comment.

Crecelius contended the texts proved that Page was playing politics and using the pay issue as part of his “personal vendetta against County Executive Stenger.”

“Leave these police officers out of it,’’ he said.

Page said his texts were being misinterpreted, and that they simply laid out his pension concerns. Page added that Earls was among many county experts that he sought out for advice.

Earls declined to comment, other than to observe that he’s happy that the council passed Page’s substitute bill.

Follow Jo on Twitter: @jmannies

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.