St. Clair County approves 2024 spending — but concerns about sheriff's funding persist
Editor's note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat.
St. Clair County Board members on Monday night voted 17-3 to approve spending $43 million on the county’s daily operations in 2024 as part of the annual budget, 4% more than last year.
Before the vote, Republican board members Ed Cockrell of District 20 and Phil Henning of District 19 said they’re concerned the sheriff’s department doesn’t have enough deputies to patrol the county and help small police departments with calls, especially at night.
The sheriff’s patrol budget is increasing 2% from 2023 to 2024, with about $80,000 more for payroll and an additional $20,000 for training.
St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson said his department has told the County Board about staffing challenges and raised the possibility of making agreements with villages to reimburse the county government for the deputies’ time.
The sheriff’s department usually has four deputies and two supervisors to cover around 700 square miles in the evenings, according to Watson. For years, the sheriff’s department has also taken emergency calls outside its jurisdiction to help small, struggling police departments in the county, he said.
“Places that used to maintain a police department before maintain a shell of a police department, and a lot of times they’re not there after 6 in the evening,” Watson said.
Col. Thomas Knapp brought up the possibility of reimbursement agreements again in the Sheriff Department’s June report to the County Board’s public safety committee. Watson said it would require action from the County Board, such as an ordinance.
“We try to help everybody,” Watson said. “The issue is if we’re going to do this on a continuous basis, we’re going to need people.
Where the money is going
Most of the increased spending in the general fund next year is going to county employees’ pay.
The budget includes money for 3% raises, the same rate they received in 2023.
The offices of the public defender and county clerk are getting particularly large payroll bumps.
Chief Public Defender Cathy MacElroy has been pushing for budget increases for years because she said caseloads were getting too high and lawyers were leaving for better-paying jobs. In late 2022, she submitted motions in court to withdraw her office from new cases because it had too few lawyers. The county agreed to give the office an additional $200,000, including about $110,000 from the state, after the budget was approved for 2023.
MacElroy used the money to hire lawyers and increase their base pay. MacElroy’s position also shifted from part-time to full-time. The state reimburses counties for two-thirds of a full-time chief public defender’s salary. Those changes are reflected in the public defender’s 2024 budget.
The county clerk’s budget is increasing in preparation for the upcoming primary and general elections. County Board Chairman Mark Kern said the county raised 2024 election judges’ pay, one of the largest expenses for elections, because the state required it.
Elections supervisor Laura Kaemmerer couldn’t immediately be reached for comment about the pay raise for election judges.
St. Clair County consolidated small voting precincts this year to comply with another change in state law, which reduced some spending on the elections.
The only department in the general fund getting less money in 2024 than in 2023 is probation.
Probation Department Director Gregory Norkus couldn’t immediately be reached for comment about the budget cut.
Kern noted several construction projects included in the 2024 budget outside of the general fund during Monday’s County Board meeting and in a letter to board members.
What this means for your taxes
It’s too early to say exactly how much residents can expect to see on their tax bills next year. That will become clear in the spring.
This fall, the St. Clair County Board set its 2024 property tax levy. The levy is the amount of tax dollars it wants to collect next year to support its budget based on estimates of what property values will look like. As of November, property values continue to increase, Kern wrote in the letter to board members.
The levy is usually abated, or lowered, in the spring when property assessments are done. Since at least 2021, the original levy has been the same each year: $78.7 million.
The county has abated over $30 million each year, which means the amount it actually asked residents to pay is closer to $40 million. About $10 million of that total supports the general fund, one portion of the budget.
And while the general fund is increasing 4%, the total amount the county expects to spend next year — $309.6 million — is almost 3% less than in 2023.
How they voted
Here’s a breakdown of how county board members voted on the budget:
Three Republicans voted no: Ed Cockrell of District 20; Andy Bittle of District 21; and Kevin Dawson of District 24.
Six Republicans voted yes: Steve Reeb of District 13; Michael O’Donnell of District 18; Phil Henning of District 19; Robert Wilhelm of District 26; Matt Smallheer of District 27; and John Coers of District 28.
All 17 Democrats at the meeting voted yes: Robert Allen Jr. of District 1; G.W. Scott Jr. of District 2; Roy Mosley Jr. of District 3; Lonnie Mosley of District 5; Marty Crawford of District 6; Courtney Moore of District 7; Steve Gomric of District 8; Ken Easterly of District 9; Scott Greenwald of District 10; Ken Sharkey of District 11; C. Richard Vernier of District 12; Bob Trentman of District 14; Jerry Dinges of District 15; C.J. Baricevic of District 16; Susan Gruberman of District 22; Jana Armstrong Moll of District 23; and Richie Meile of District 25.
Two Democrats were absent from the meeting: Harry Hollingsworth of District 4 and Scott Tieman of District 17.
Lexi Cortes is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.