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St. Louis County executive cuts spending for County Council, ramping up budget fight

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger is going into the 2018 election cycle with few strong allies on the county council.
File Photo | Carolina Hidalgo I St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger is slashing the County Council’s plan to increase its own spending, in apparent retaliation for how the council cut the budgets for most county departments.

Stenger’s executive order, issued Wednesday, adds fuel to his ongoing fight with the council — especially chairman Sam Page, a fellow Democrat — on various issues.

Stenger’s order, which takes effect immediately, said the council should “share in fiscal restraint as it has asked other departments to do” in the new budget that took effect Monday.

The order did not come up during Wednesday's council meeting,  but afterwards council chairman Sam Page accused  Stenger of engaging in "a tit for tat game."

The council has no power to overturn Stenger's executive order.

The council voted in December to freeze spending for most county departments – including parks, public health and transportation – at 2017 levels, plus 5 percent. That action cut $31 million from Stenger’s proposed budget, a rare occurrence in county government.

Page and other council members said the spending cuts are necessary to protect the county's dwindling budget reserves. Stenger contends the county has about $100 million in reserves, but council members say he's including money that can only be spent for certain county operations.

Stenger is blocking the council’s plan to increase its own budget this year by $527,385. Much of that money is earmarked to expand staff for the county auditor, who largely answers to the council. Stenger has blocked any staff expansion and maintained that new Auditor Mark Tucker, a Page ally, is unqualified and should be fired.

“The council needs to lead by example and I issued the executive order which basically holds the council accountable to the same requirement that it imposed on the rest of county government," Stenger said in an interview after the council meeting.

Stenger emphasized that Tucker has yet to hire the staff allocated under his office's existing 2017 budget. In his executive order, Stenger wrote that he had no objection if the auditor added one new person to his staff. But Stenger’s order stipulates that the auditor will not be granted additional money without the approval of Stenger, as well as the council.

Stenger emphasized his powers under the county charter in an apparent pushback to Page and council allies who contend that the council needs to exert more clout over county operations.

Stenger’s order also bars spending for the new council post of “legislative director’’ or for the council’s legal expenses in its court fight with the county executive. The council had filed suit last fall to challenge Stenger’s refusal to hire more staff for the auditor’s office.

Page asserted that Stenger's latest action just adds more impetus of the council's lawsuit. “The county executive is leading us in the wrong direction and that’s why we froze spending and increased the budget for auditing and accountability," he said. "And we're going to continue to do that.”

Stenger also is blocking roughly $123,000 in additional money that the council had earmarked for the county election board. Stenger said in his order that the board first must justify the additional spending to his office.

Follow Jo on Twitter: @jmannies

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.