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Stenger calls bid by St. Louis County Council to gain more budgetary authority a 'power grab'

The St. Louis County Council approved three charter amendments earlier this month. One would provide the council with more authority over the county budget.
File photo | Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
The St. Louis County Council approved three charter amendments earlier this month. One would provide the council with more authority over the county budget.

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger is panning an effort to give the County Council more budgetary authority.

If Stenger vetoes the measure, the council is prepared to override the Democratic chief executive — setting up a showdown at the ballot box later this fall.

The council passed three charter amendments last week that, among other things, place caps on political donations and require certain financial information be posted online. But the most significant measure would give the council more authority to appropriate tax dollars. It also would require council approval for any county executive request to transfer funds within a department.

Stenger told reporters on Tuesday evening he’s still reviewing the three charter amendments and hasn’t decided on whether he’ll veto them. But as was the case when the council broached the issue earlier this year, he clearly wasn’t a fan of the measure expanding council budgetary authority.

“I think particularly the budget-related sort of power grab the council is making is problematic in that it completely eliminates checks and balances in our local government, which I think is a problem,” Stenger said.

The charter amendments come as Stenger’s relationship with the council has deteriorated significantly since the beginning of 2017. Proponents of changing the charter, such as Council Chairman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, contend they will give the council more oversight over an executive branch.

Stenger said he isn’t surprised the council is seeking to expand its reach.

“I think it’s nothing new,” Stenger said. “I think we’ve seen this in every government in the world — one branch competing with another branch. I just think it’s a natural consequence of perhaps human nature.”

If Stenger were to veto any of the charter amendments, council members would have until Aug. 28 to override him. Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-south St. Louis County, said he believes that’s an inevitability.

“If he vetoes it, it will be overridden at least 6 to 1 — and it will be on the ballot,” Trakas said.

Trakas emphasized that “this is not some zero-sum game, power struggle.”

“This is simply at least six members of an elected body acting as a check and balance, and oversight, on county government,” Trakas said. “Nothing more complex than that. It’s got nothing to do with politics. It’s got nothing to do with elections. It’s got everything to do with transparency and good governance.”

If Stenger either signs the charter amendments, or if his vetoes are overridden, St. Louis County voters will decide on the issue on Nov. 6.

Compromise on nurses?

A big part of Tuesday’s council meeting featured more back and forth on whether to give raisesto nurses that work in the St. Louis County Justice Center. Stenger and the council have been at an impasse for months over whether to use money from the health fund or a sales tax for public safety for the salary increases.

One idea that was pitched on Tuesday was to reclassify the nurses’ from being under the authority of the health department to being part of the justice center staff.

Stenger said if “we’re able to ensure that their duties relate to public safety,” then “it could create a legal difference that I think would be appropriate under the circumstance.”

County counselor Peter Krane committed to getting the council legislative proposals by the end of the week.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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