Some Hope Influx Of Federal Money May Soothe St. Louis County Tensions
This isn’t the first stimulus rodeo for St. Louis County Councilwoman Rita Days.
During Days’ last couple of years in the Missouri General Assembly, she was part of a legislative battle over how to spend a flood of money that came to the state from then-President Barack Obama’s federal stimulus bill. Some GOP lawmakers wanted to use that money to backfill tax cuts, but ultimately the legislature spent the funds on a host of projects — and to shore up Missouri’s budget.
Now as chairwoman of the St. Louis County Council, Days will play a role in deciding where about $190 million from the latest federal COVID-19 relief plan goes.
Days has led a majority coalition against St. Louis County Executive Sam Page’s administration. But members of the council are hopeful that they can find common ground on how to spend this money — and they agree that the process for divvying the funds will be substantially different than what happened in 2020.
“If you look at the whole county picture, all of us have some issues that we need to address,” said Days, D-Bel Nor. “And I think that we need to come together and put a plan together as to how we think we need to move forward with this. And I'm hoping that seven of us can get together on all that.”
Added Page: “We don’t have the money yet or the guidance. And we have some time to plan this out and make some really tough decisions.
“I think it’s important to have conversations with the council members about how they would like to see that money spent,” Page said. “It will be a council decision. It will be a group decision along with me. It will be an appropriations bill. But we have time to think long term about how we’re going to make our community better.”
Eye on housing, infrastructure
Some of the federal funds will likely be used to close a budgetary gap caused by the economic impact of the pandemic. And while county officials are still figuring how the money can be spent, some council members agree that it should go toward things like housing, transportation and public health care services.
Others, like Tim Fitch, R-St. Louis County, said they would like to see the funds go to small businesses that were financially affected by the pandemic. St. Louis County enacted a number of health orders that restricted occupancy and, in the case of restaurants, curtailed in-person dining.
“I feel strongly that we need to use a significant amount of this money to figure out which businesses went bankrupt and went out of business because of the orders the health department put on them,” Fitch said. “I think it’s important to go back to those owners and say, ‘Look if we could help, would you reestablish your business — because we realize you shut down because of the orders?’”
Both Days and Councilman Ernie Trakas also said they want some of the funds to go toward housing and infrastructure needs in unincorporated St. Louis County, whose residents have long complained about lack of attention from county government. Municipalities will get their own direct funding from the American Rescue Plan, which wasn’t the case in 2020 with the CARES Act money that came to the county.
“I expect District 6 to get its fair share,” said Trakas, a Republican whose district includes most of unincorporated south St. Louis County. “There are some particular infrastructure needs in District 6, particularly in the Lemay area with respect to problem properties and with respect to roads and alleyways.”
Days said she’d like to have money to either demolish or renovate problem properties in largely African American neighborhoods in unincorporated St. Louis County.
“So really when I'm looking at housing, that's what I'm looking at — not necessarily, you know, building new houses,” Days said. “But maybe doing some renovation or collaborating with some entities that do rehabs — things like that.”
Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, said she’s also interested in putting some of the stimulus money toward dealing with the county’s housing needs. She said some of the funds could be put in the county’s recently established Affordable Housing Trust Fund.
“We have a very modest amount of what I call a down payment of money from our medical marijuana revenue,” Clancy said. “I think that is an excellent vehicle with which we can deploy resources wherever we can find them for long term housing issues. And that includes many of the things that we're using money for people in crisis right now, like rental assistance like utility relief.”
The American Rescue Plan funds come after a highly publicized split on the council. Webb, Fitch, Days and Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, constitute the majority coalition that’s been more critical of Page’s leadership. Trakas, Days and Kelli Dunaway, D-Chesterfield, are generally more aligned with the county executive, depending on the issue.
Back in 2020, Page and some members of the council fought over a decision to give the county executive’s office ultimate authority on how to spend federal COVID-19 funds. That meant that Page didn’t have to go back to the council to approve individual line items for most of the money.
That won’t happen this time around. Days, who initially supported that decision but has since said she regretted it, expects the council to play a much bigger role in how the money is distributed — as do other members of the council.
“We’re going to assert ourselves differently, but strongly, going forward to make sure the council has oversight and decision-making on as much money as possible,” Harder said. “The last time was handled poorly, and we’re not going to do that again.”
Trakas was even more blunt: “There’s virtually no prospect that the county executive will get four votes to appropriate the entire sum. So the question then becomes in what fashion and in what order should the money be appropriated? I think it should be a very deliberative process.”
Page has reached out to individual council members about how they want to see the money spent. He attributes a lot of the tensions between himself and the council to disagreements over the county’s COVID-19 restrictions.
“We’re almost to the other side of the worst part of the pandemic,” Page said. “Our community is getting vaccinated. There’s a lot of hope in our community, and there’s a lot of excitement. We’re not out of the woods yet.”
Even though allies of Page don’t have a majority coalition on the council right now, that doesn’t mean they won’t influence where the money goes.
That’s because Page could veto any plan. And if Clancy, Dunaway and Trakas don’t join with the four-person majority coalition to override his objection, they won’t be able to enact their spending plan. Though Fitch noted that if Page vetoed a plan to dole out the money and there weren't enough votes to override his objection, the money could conceivably go unspent.
“We need to govern,” Trakas said. “And we need to put political agendas aside. And my hope is that will happen.”
During a press conference earlier this month, Page stressed that some of the money is needed to shore up the county’s public health programs — adding that “a good economy starts with healthy people.”
“Too many disparities remain, and too many of them are right at the front of this pandemic,” Page said. “We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fix some things. We must be creative with the solutions we craft. As businesses reopen, we can’t just go back to normal because yesterday’s normal didn’t work for everyone. The old economic forces overlooked too many people.”
He said he wants to spend some of the money on retraining workers and “getting disconnected workers back to the workforce.”
“We’ll help those small businesses that were doing well before the pandemic, and helping them reopen — and helping them get their employees back to work,” Page said.
There could be other factors that may alleviate county executive-council tensions besides a desire for cooperation. If the federal money forestalls budget cuts, that could make preparing next year’s budget significantly less contentious than in years past.
And while most council members hope the money will spur collaboration between the county executive and the council, others are waiting to see if that will happen.
“We've never had a windfall like this dumped in our lap, and unfortunately when that happens everybody is at the trough trying to figure out how much money they get for their pet project,” Harder said.
Page said the county will receive two chunks of American Rescue Plan money in the coming months and have three years to spend it. He expects the council and his administration will have similar ideas on where the money should go.
“It really is only natural that we would come up with a lot of the same ideas and be in agreement on much of this, because we’re hearing from the same groups of people in the community,” Page said.
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