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Coronavirus Pandemic Leads To Grim Budget Picture For St. Louis

Screenshot of the meeting of Board of Estimate and Apportionment on April 22, 2020.
Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio
Members of the Board of Estimate and Apportionment listen as Mayor Lyda Krewson, top left, speaks during a virtual meeting shown in this screenshot from Wednesday.

St. Louis lawmakers will have to make up at least a $40 million gap in the budget for fiscal 2021.

The spending plan presented Wednesday to Mayor Lyda Krewson, Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed and Comptroller Darlene Green shows revenue down nearly 3% from last year to this year. The biggest drops are in gaming and sales taxes.

“Just as a historical comparison, in fiscal year '10, which was the worst performance we had in the last Great Recession, I think our revenues were down 2.1%,” said Budget Director Paul Payne.

To make up for the gap between expected revenue and necessary spending, Payne is proposing about $10 million in cuts, mostly in the Department of Corrections. Those cuts will mean 88 fewer positions, likely through attrition.

The reduction in spending on the Medium Security Institution, the north St. Louis jail commonly known as the Workhouse, is a small victory for activists who have been pushing to shut it downentirely. As of Wednesday, the jail, which was built to hold 436 people, housed 112.

Payne’s proposed budget also recommends moving special funds into general revenue, eliminating things like small projects in individual wards. 

Plenty of uncertainty remains. City officials have to find a way to close a $40 million gap in the current budget, which will likely happen through a hiring freeze, strict limits on spending and requests to use leftover money on capital projects. And if the economic recovery is slower than expected, the gap in fiscal 2021 could balloon to nearly $90 million, which could mean furloughs of city employees on top of the already planned restrictions.

“While we are by charter required to pass this budget before June 30, I think we have to be a little nimble on this and recognize that as weeks and months go by on this, we will get better data,” Krewson said.

The budget Payne presented to the Board of Estimate and Apportionment is far from final. The three members must send it to the Board of Aldermen by April 30. Aldermen can take money from one area of the budget to boost spending in another, but they cannot increase the overall size of the budget.

Reed made it clear Wednesday that he will work to protect funding for Cure Violence, a program to reduce violent crime that was to focus on three neighborhoods with additional intervention. 

“We’re still seeing a rash of murders even during the coronavirus outbreak,” Reed said. “Both of them are health crises, and we need to treat them both as crises.”

The Board of Estimate and Apportionment will hold a public hearing on the budget at 10 a.m. Friday. 

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.