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Page is ‘cautiously optimistic’ worst of the pandemic is behind St. Louis County

Sam Page, St. Louis County Executive, gives the first-ever State of the County address
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Sam Page, St. Louis County executive, gives the first-ever State of the County address on Wednesday at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center on the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus.

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page used the first-ever State of the County speech to lay out a vision for Missouri’s most populous county that goes beyond the COVID-19 pandemic that’s defined most of his tenure in the powerful post.

The Democratic official also used the address on the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus to provide hope that the rancor and contention that’s defined St. Louis County politics for roughly a decade can subside.

“St. Louis County is blessed with talent, resources and a can-do spirit. Let’s build on it. Nourish it. And make sure everybody has an opportunity to succeed — to realize dreams can come true,” Page said.

During his roughly 30-minute speech, Page ticked through some of the accomplishments of various county departments. That included new programs at the county’s justice center that connect inmates with their loved ones and transportation projects such as a refurbishment of Airport Road in north St. Louis County.

Page noted that county government was still able to function, even though the COVID-19 pandemic upended everyday life. While COVID-19 is still “part of our community,” Page said the virus is “no longer overwhelming our hospitals.”

“And I stand here today cautiously optimistic that the worst of the pandemic is behind us,” Page said. “The pandemic occupied a great deal of our time. Saving lives was the priority. And we worked hard to provide testing and vaccine sites to help keep residents safe. We knew little about the virus early on. But we relied on history to map out our response.”

In addition to placing occupancy restrictions on businesses throughout the earlier part of the pandemic, Page kept masking requirements in place for public areas up until relatively recently. That move brought about scorn from some residents at county council meetings — and lawsuits from Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt.

Listen to Page's State of the County speech
The above audio features St. Louis County Executive Sam Page's State of the County speech. This is the first time such an address has been done in Missouri's largest county.

Page said on Wednesday that the county can modernize different aspects of government with federal relief money from what’s known as the American Rescue Plan Act. He also said the county will get a boost from a recently passed federal infrastructure bill — and an unknown amount of money from a settlement eminenting from the departure of the St. Louis Rams.

“We’ve been asked what should be done with the funds once the county has its share of more than $500 million,” Page said. “That’s a good question. And one we don’t yet have an answer for. My office created a template for community engagement with the [federal relief funds]. And we can use that format again to get input on those dollars.”

Councilman Mark Harder, one of the members of the county council who attended Page’s speech, said money from the Rams lawsuit should be used for “seed money for bigger things.”

“Instead of spending all that money and then it’s gone, I think we need to use that as more of seed money for grants for different projects around town — so that it keeps being reinvested and we keep growing that pot for the future,” said Harder, R-Ballwin.

County Councilwoman Rita Heard Days speaks to the media
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
County Councilwoman Rita Heard Days speaks to the media on Wednesday after the first-ever State of the County address.

Council discord

Like his two predecessors as county executive — Steve Stenger and Charlie Dooley — Page has clashed with a majority coalition of the St. Louis County Council over a host of issues. That includes Page’s response to the pandemic, which often received criticism from both Republican and Democratic members of the council.

Council Chairwoman Rita Days, D-Bel Nor, noted that Page needs the council to get much of his vision for the county implemented.

“The council has always tried to work with the county executive. But we have to understand that the county executive does not pass legislation,” said Days, who is part of a bipartisan coalition that has often differed with Page on issues. “And when you do need legislation, you need to come to council. Give us the explanation of what we need. Make sure we’re comfortable with what we’re trying to pass.”

Page is up for a full four-year term later this year. He’ll face attorney Jane Dueker in the Democratic primary — and potentially a well-organized and well-funded challenge from GOP state Rep. Shamed Dogan of Ballwin in the general election.

Attorney Jane Dueker, center, speaks to the media
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Attorney Jane Dueker speaks to the media after the State of the County address on Wednesday at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center on the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus. Dueker will face Sam Page on the Democratic ticket for the county executive seat this August.

Dueker, who was at Page’s speech, noted that the county executive didn’t mention anything in his address about the passage of Proposition B — which requires a county executives to forfeit the office if they have other employment.

“Yes or no County Executive Page — are you going to quit your side job?” said Dueker, referring to how Page has worked as an anesthesiologist during his time as county executive. “The voters spoke loud and clear that they want a full-time executive. It was already in the charter. They reaffirmed it. And not a word.”

Page did not make himself available to reporters after his speech to answer questions about the passage of Proposition B. Page spokesman Doug Moore said in a statement that the county executive “will abide by the charter as amended by the voters on Tuesday.” KMOX reported that Page has quit his job with Western Anesthesiology Associates, but Moore hasn’t confirmed that yet with St. Louis Public Radio.

During his speech, Page said “it’s time to disrupt once and for all this tired, dangerous narrative and keep talking about what matters.”

“At our core, we all want to feel safe — and part of a community that provides opportunities to succeed, to be heard and to belong,” Page said. “Challenges come at us that we don’t often expect. COVID hit us fast and hard — and didn’t want to let up. Challenges will always be a part of us. It’s how we respond to those challenges, however, that chart our course.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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