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St. Louis County Council overrules Stenger by cutting budget

With elections looming, tensions continue between the St. Louis County Council and County Executive Stenger.
File photo I Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

The St. Louis County Council has slashed $31 million dollars from County Executive Steve Stenger's 2018 budget proposal, a move rarely seen in the region’s largest jurisdiction.

Stenger was caught off-guard when he learned of the council’s plans shortly before it convened Tuesday night. Soon after, the seven members voted 6 - 1 to approve Council Chairman Sam Page's substitute budget. 

Page’s framework basically freezes most county spending at this year’s levels, with what he calls “a 5-percent cushion” for many departments.

The vote was veto-proof, but Page said the Council was open to negotiations.  “We can’t give (Stenger) a blank check and he gave us a budget that took the county in the wrong direction,” Page said.  

Several Council members, especially the Republicans,  objected to Stenger’s budget because it relied on $18 million from the county’s reserves.

Councilman Pat Dolan, a Democrat and Stenger ally, cast the only dissenting vote. He complained that he had been kept out of the loop and found out about the proposed budget cuts right before the meeting.

A final vote is slated for next Tuesday. The county’s fiscal year begins Jan. 1.

Page,  a Democrat, had been asserting for weeks that the county faced serious financial problems in 2019 if it failed to curb spending now.

But Stenger, also a Democrat, has maintained that the county’s finances aren’t so bad, especially if the Council approves some of his proposed pension changes for new employees.

Stenger contended that political factors – not finances – were behind Page’s actions. The two have been at odds over a number of issues in recent months.

“The Council has raised its own budget expenditure by almost 30 percent but cut money for vital services by $31 million,” Stenger said in a statement issued after the vote. “Meanwhile, it approved an additional $10 million of expenditures for Metro. We will continue to analyze these actions and will have more to say soon.”

The Council did earmark money from Proposition P – a sales tax increase for police approved last spring – to increase officers’ pay.  Even so, the Council has heard complaints for weeks from the county police department’s civilian staff because they were not receiving as much of a pay boost.

Overview of budget cuts, increases

Page’s budget bill indicates that the bulk of the added council allocation of $527,000 would go for added staffing for the county auditor, an operation under the council’s control. Stenger has blocked the hiring of additional auditing staff, because he has maintained that new Auditor Mark Tucker is unqualified.

Stenger and the council are in the midst of a court fight over who controls the staffing for Tucker’s office.

With the exception of the increase for County Council operations, almost all other county operations would see cuts from Stenger’s proposed budget. The cuts outlined in Page's substitute include:

  • $1.56 million (roughly 20 percent) from the county’s administration budget;
  • $1.54 million (about 25 percent) from economic development;
  • $7.6 million (about 20 percent) from the county’s parks and recreation budget;
  • $6.1 million (about 10 percent) from the county’s transportation budget;
  • $7.9 million (close to 15 percent) from the county’s health department.
  • Close to $200,000 (about 10 percent) from the county executive’s budget;
  • About $345,000 (3 percent) from County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s office;
  • $668,000 (10 percent) from the county’s Department of Revenue.

The one notable increase was $123,062 added to Stenger’s proposed budget for the county’s  Board of Elections. Page said in an interview that the increase was needed to comply with state requirements.

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