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St. Louis County could exhaust reserves in near future without tough decisions

Members of the St. Louis County Council listen to Justice Services director Scott Anders during a meeting on Dec. 13, 2022.
Jason Rosenbaum
St. Louis Public Radio
Members of the St. Louis County Council listen to Justice Services Director Scott Anders talk about filling jail positions during a meeting on Tuesday.

The St. Louis County Council finished work Tuesday on next year’s budget by tapping reserves to help cover a $40 million deficit.

But numerous policymakers are warning of tougher times ahead if elected officials don’t find a way to meaningfully close the deficit that threatens to eventually exhaust the county’s key reserve funds. The county is projected to have about $93 million in reserves by the end of 2022, which doesn’t include money that’s earmarked for projects paid for with American Rescue Plan funds.

The council passed bills that make up the roughly $1 billion budget for 2023. In order to pass the final piece of legislation that funds a good chunk of county government, council members had to do a rare substitute motion that added funding for the county courts and 16 positions in the county jail.

The voting crossed party lines. Democrats Lisa Clancy, Kelli Dunaway and Shalonda Webb joined Republican Tim Fitch in voting for that bill, while Republicans Mark Harder and Ernie Trakas and Democrat Rita Days voted against it.

Trakas in particular was critical of the council’s approach to the budget. While the bills make cuts to various vacant positions, he contends that will do little to chip away at the budget gap if the positions weren’t being filled anyway or if departments can come back throughout 2023 and ask for additional funding.

He also said it was “reckless behavior” to add 16 positions for the county’s Justice Center when there’s no guarantee that current vacancies can be filled.

“There’s no fiscal restraint here whatsoever,” Trakas said.

Days called the decision to add positions for the Justice Service Center “a knee-jerk reaction” to high-profile troubles at the jail.

“They have vacancies that they have not filled because they do not have the people to fill those,” Days said. “You could have 19 positions or 40 positions. If you do not have the people in place to be hired, then it doesn’t matter. So that’s why I’m taken aback by this entire process.”

Others, like Webb, said it was appropriate to add the positions for the jail, adding that there was a commitment from St. Louis County Executive Sam Page to hold monthly meetings over 2023 to look for cost savings in various departments.

“It’s not a knee-jerk reaction. It’s not an emotion,” Webb said. “It’s about making sure that the departments have what they need, and more if necessary, to provide the safety and excellence in services.”

Clancy added that she made it clear to her colleagues that she felt strongly that the positions for the jail should be filled. She also pointed to testimony from Justice Services Director Scott Anders expressing confidence that he could fill vacant positions in a short period of time.

“We know of the severe understaffing at our Justice Center,” Clancy said. “There’s video footage that’s been published in the media of a guard getting attacked. We’ve got to do our due diligence to address this.”

Rough waters ahead

Even though the council’s budget includes curtailing vacant positions, St. Louis County Budget Director Paul Kreidler said last week that will have a marginal impact on the budget. That’s because, among other reasons, the positions were unlikely to be filled anyway.

“So if our message to the departments is you keep working at your existing staffing and service levels, and if you get caught short you can come back to the council for [more money for positions], if there’s an expectation that the supplemental is approved, I would argue that doesn’t really change the total behavior,” Kreidler said at a recent budget hearing.

Page said earlier this month that reducing appropriations to fund vacant positions could reduce the “flexibility and budgeting for open positions that probably won't be filled during the year.”

“And traditionally, we've had that flexibility. And their proposal is to cut some of that back,” Page said. “We haven't seen any proposals yet to significantly close the structural gap between the expected end-of-year spend and our revenues over the next couple of years.”

Kreidler said that the budgetary gap throughout 2023 will be filled with reserves. He said the council probably has a sufficient amount of money to do that for the next couple of years but added that without drastic action, those funds will run dry.

Page added that policymakers have to “come up with a plan to close that gap.”

“Right now, we have plenty of money in our reserves to continue providing the county services that people have come to expect,” Page said. “But over the next couple of years, we're going to have to make some tough decisions about which services we continue to provide or whether or not we're going to look for new revenues.”

Harder said the monthly meetings about slimming down county government will be crucial to avoid a budgetary disaster. He added, “We've just got to get ready to do something to get ahead of this or else next year it's going to be a bloodbath.”

“And that will involve a lot of people putting their heads together and coming up with ideas that we haven't explored at this point,” Harder said. “And we're going to need some out of the box thinking going forward. So I'm hoping that they will be fruitful meetings. And they will not just be, you know, ‘planning to plan’ type of meetings.”

Not everyone thinks the solution to the budgetary woes should be cutting services.

Dunaway said Tuesday that her colleagues should think of ways to drum up more revenue. That includes the county reaping the financial benefits from the recent decision in the state to legalize recreational marijuana.

“Why aren’t we working together to find creative ways to raise revenue without raising taxes?” Dunaway said. “Why aren’t we selling naming rights on our infrastructure projects? Why aren’t we trying to raise revenue by leasing naming rights or other types of public-private partnerships?”

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