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Council approves $35 million in cuts to Stenger’s budget recommendations

St. Louis County Councilman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, answers questions on Dec. 11, 2018, about initial passage of the 2019 budget.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis County Council members gave first-round approval to the 2019 budget, including major cuts to what St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger recommended.

It’s the second year in a row that the council has made reductions to Stenger’s proposed budget — a move council members believe is necessary to prevent jeopardizing the county’s reserves.

Councilman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, said the budget the council gave initial approval to on Tuesday is essentially a budget “freeze.” He said the council is asking the “county executive and the county departments, for the most part, to live within their 2018 budget with some small adjustments.”

Page estimated that the council cut about $35 million from Stenger’s proposed budget. He said he wants to prevent the county from spending too much of its reserves — a decision he said would amount to an “uncontrolled trajectory of county government.”

“If we approved the county executive’s budget, we would be headed for a train wreck,” Page said.

The council needs to vote one more time to send the budget to Stenger. The county executive wasn’t at Tuesday’s council meeting, but his chief of staff, Bill Miller, took issue with how the council cut recommendations in various departments — but then asked for more than $500,000 to boost its own budget.

“I think it’s unconscionable that the council is cutting vital economic-development efforts while inflating its own budget at taxpayer expense,” Miller said.

One big change in the budget is that the council is funding the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership every quarter — as opposed to supplying an entire year’s budget. That comes as the council has raised questions over how the partnership has operated over the past couple of years.

Page also said Stenger’s budget included 50 positions in the St. Louis County Police Department that likely won’t be filled in the next fiscal year. So Page said the council decided not to “fund positions that we know won’t be filled.” That brought criticism from St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar.

“In effect, what’s been proposed here is a hiring freeze,” Belmar said. “It’s a hiring freeze on police officers in St. Louis County. It is counter towhat voters’ wishes were in this case.”

Page said the council can easily pass a supplemental budget later in the year if Belmar “determines that those additional officers and those positions need to be filled, or they need to have the openings for the new officers.”

Page said the council budget for the 2019 budget is fairly similar to what was allocated last year. He said a court decision rejecting Stenger’s ability to withhold money came late in the year, which means the council was “unable to spend on the very important services that the county council provides.” That includes, Page said, hiring “more auditors for county government.”

If Stenger vetoes the budget, it would take five council members to override his objection. If a 2019 budget is not adopted, then the spending levels for 2018 would remain in effect after Jan. 1.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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