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County Council’s new budget now approved, but could ignite legal fights

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger confers with Councilman Pat Dolan at a Dec. 19, 2017, meeting of the St. Louis County Council.
File Photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger confers with Councilman Pat Dolan at a Dec. 19, 2017, meeting of the St. Louis County Council.

The St. Louis County Council’s decision to draw up and approve its own budget ends a longstanding practice of allowing the county executive’s administration to craft a spending blueprint.

The big question now is what will happen next.

County Executive Steve Stenger has yet to talk about his next move after the council voted 6 to 1 on Tuesday to pass its own spending plan.

The council cut $31 million dollars from Stenger’s original budget proposal, trimming spending for parks, public health and transportation programs.

In most cases, the council froze spending at current levels, plus a 5 percent increase.  The council did increase spending for its own department by about $500,000, primarily to pay for additional employees that Stenger has refused to hire to aid county auditor Mark Tucker.

“We have initiated a very important spending freeze in St. Louis County to stop this trend of spending into our reserves and heading us down the road toward a tax increase or service cuts,” said Council Chairman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur.

Stenger and Page, both Democrats, have been battling for months over Tucker, who Stenger contends is unqualified and should be fired.

Break in precedent

In any case, this may be the first time in the county’s modern history that the county council passed its own version of the budget — as opposed to adopting what the county executive proposed or ordering the administration to make changes. And legal questions may be looming.

County Counselor Peter Krane raised some technical concerns in an email sent to council members.

County resident Tom Sullivan, a regular at council meetings, also filed a complaint this week with Missouri Attorney General John Hawley’s office. Sullivan contends Page violated the state’s Sunshine Law because he filed the substitute budget bills about two hours before last week’s initial council vote.

Sullivan told the council Tuesday that open records laws require such bills to be filed at least 24 hours before an initial vote is taken.

Councilman Pat Dolan, a Democrat from Richmond Heights, voted against the various budget bills primarily because he said he had been intentionally kept in the dark until right before last week’s meeting. Dolan is Stenger’s closest ally.

Page dismissed such complaints, and blamed Krane for any technical problems with the bills. Still, Page said he doesn’t believe Krane’s concerns will create legal problems for the council.

Stenger declined comment after the vote. But he said earlier this month that his budget was sound, and he accused Page of making false accusations about the administration’s proposed budget.

Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, reaffirmed Tuesday that his key concern was that Stenger’s budget relied on using about $18 million from the county’s reserve fund. The council’s substitute budget does not.

He said the county needs to curb spending to protect its bond rating.

“We’ve been told by our county budget director that there’s going to be a day of reckoning, every time we’ve put one of these budgets together,” Harder said.

He and fellow Republican Colleen Wasinger said Tuesday that they expected some county department heads may need to file supplementary budget requests, and that they would be receptive to the proposals if the departments provide adequate information.

Both made a point of publicly praising the county department heads for their work in drawing up their initial budget proposals, even though the council ended up rejecting them.

Harder and Wasinger often side with Stenger, and Harder observed that he still expects to work with Stenger on other issues.

Follow Jo on Twitter: @jmannies

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