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Fingers pointing in St. Louis County’s Prop P blame game

Fingers pointing in St. Louis County’s Prop P blame game

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Belmar and Page

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, left, chats with St. Louis County Executive Sam Page on May 8.

Photo by Hillary Levin, hlevin@post-dispatch.com

CLAYTON — Two days after St. Louis County Councilman Tim Fitch asked the director of administration to explain why the county was spending reserves from its Proposition P public safety tax, the county executive’s office on Thursday redirected blame back toward the council.

Fitch, R-3rd District, inquired about the health of the public safety tax fund after the county budget director told him in an email that Proposition P revenues were “over-budgeted.” The half-cent tax, which voters overwhelmingly approved in April 2017, is projected to raise nearly $50 million per year for the county.

The email to Fitch from county budget director Paul Kreidler said the sales tax fund was “over-budgeted” after the county reached a contract with the county’s 800 police officers late last year.

In an interview with the newspaper, Fitch said he would not have supported the deal if he knew the county had to use reserve funds. Proposition P funds had a surplus last year, starting the year with $16.1 million and ending with $20.9 million. Fitch said it was important to keep reserves strong to gird against any downturn in revenue.

Moreover, he said, the county leans on surplus Proposition P funds to show healthy reserves on its books, allowing county government to maintain a high bond rating and favorable interest rates.

But Doug Moore, a spokesman for County Executive Sam Page, said Thursday it wasn’t the police contract that sent the Proposition P fund into a projected deficit. It was a Dec. 26 action by the council to approve raises for employees in St. Louis County Family Court.

Moore said that “contrary to the County Executive’s recommended budget, Councilman Fitch supported spending an additional $1.3 million each year from Prop P on the Family Court. We plan to take financial steps this year to ensure that Councilman Fitch’s … decision does not require us to spend into the Prop P reserves.”

Told of Moore’s statement, Fitch said the council had been acting on the advice of the county counselor’s office to settle a dispute with the court over funding for its employees. He and Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-6th District, said the council agreed to a package of 10% raises for those employees rather than getting into a legal dispute with the court, where the county would have legal bills on both sides.

Beth Orwick, the county counselor, said she could not discuss advice she had given her client. Winston Calvert, Page’s chief of staff, said, “Lawyers can’t talk about privileged matters, but I can tell you that lawyers don’t tell clients what to do. They give advice and counsel.”

Trakas disputed Moore’s figure of $1.3 million. He said he thought the amount the council agreed to give the court was no more than $400,000.

Fitch said there was never any discussion that suggested the amount was coming from Proposition P reserves.

The council’s agenda and minutes of the meeting were not conclusive on the amount, indicating the council voted 5-0 to approve the raises during a special meeting that lasted just a few minutes.

Under an ordinance passed by the council last year, Proposition P money can be spent by the police department, jail, prosecuting attorney, municipal court and family court. A representative from the courts could not be reached.

Many in St. Louis County were asking whether the Page administration was planning to use Proposition P funds to pay for another large expense this year: a nearly $20 million verdict against the county last fall in a workplace discrimination lawsuit in favor of county police Lt. Keith Wildhaber.

The amount the county will ultimately pay is not yet clear because lawyers for the county and Wildhaber have been in mediation to try to settle on an amount, and the county may not have insurance coverage.

Moore referred the question to Orwick, who said she could not talk about a case in litigation.

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