CLAYTON • A year ago, the St. Louis County Council expressed alarm at language in County Executive Steve Stenger’s budget proposal that said the county was burning through reserve cash and would have to raise taxes or cut services in a year’s time to stay solvent.
Stenger summoned local news reporters to his office to soft-pedal the dire budget language and blast Council Chairman Sam Page’s comments in that morning’s Post-Dispatch characterizing the situation as a crisis.
“First and foremost, under our administration, the county government will not increase taxes or cut services,” Stenger said that day. “Secondly, the county’s budget is sound and will remain so. Period.”
But members of Stenger’s administration on Tuesday indicated that last year’s budget assessment was correct — and that a budget reckoning is nigh.
“I think it’s pretty obvious that we’re either going to cut positions or raise revenue,” Glenn Powers, Stenger’s chief of operations, told council members in a hearing on Tuesday. Stenger has proposed a $619 million spending plan, a 6.6 percent increase from the budget adopted a year ago.
A year ago, Stenger accused his political rivals on the council of fabricating an election-year crisis to harm his bid for a second term. And he insisted employee attrition would balance the budget without service cuts or new taxes.
Powers had the opposite message on Tuesday.
“Ultimately, we have to be just as focused on services as we are on positions,” he told the council. “We can’t keep eliminating people and expect the same level of service. We have to decide what things we’re doing that we’re going to stop doing.”
Bill Miller, Stenger’s chief of staff, said in a statement that the county “can operate well with the recommended budget in 2019 and continue to provide the quality services that county residents have come to expect.”
Miller noted it’s early in the process. “If reductions should be needed, we will work to identify them with the Council.”
It was not the first meeting between the executive and legislative branches to discuss how to spend tax money next year. In October, Stenger’s staff prepared a slide show for council members about addressing budget challenges such as raising pay for county workers. The meeting was not advertised; no members of the public attended.
The presentation, obtained by the newspaper through an open records request, recommended targeted cuts to eliminate programs, rather than across-the-board cuts. And it raised the possibility of increasing property taxes, which are currently 48.9 cents per $100 of assessed valuation — or asking voters to approve a sales tax or use tax.
On Tuesday, Councilman Mark Harder, R-7th District, asked Powers what services Stenger’s office was thinking of eliminating.
“It’s too early for me to speak for him on that,” Powers replied. “We haven’t really begun talking about how we are going to close the gap.” He said he and county budget director Paul Kreidler, who was at the hearing, had ideas “but before we actually do anything, we have to get the buy-in of the county executive.”
Powers said he has tried to help the budget situation by being judicious with hires, “but ultimately what we’ve done — up until now — is provide a traditional level of service.”
Harder asked Powers what had changed since Stenger’s claim a year ago that the county would not need to cut services or raise taxes.
“Well, nothing much has changed,” Powers replied. He said the county executive and council have wanted to continue with a traditional service level, “but there is a point where that’s no longer possible. … We’re either going to have to raise revenue, something we all avoid talking about, or we’re going to have to cut.”
“I think the fair way to do that is to identify services that we’re doing that we would stop doing, rather than just saying we’re going to cut X number of positions and expect less people to do more work,” he said.
Harder and Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-6th District, blasted Stenger for proposing a year of deficit spending without any plan for fixing the problem.
“We’re just going to let (the deficit) roll into next year and we’ll get to it when we get to it?” Harder asked Powers.
“Next year we’re going to have to decide, because we can’t go into 2019-20 this way,” Powers replied. He added, “We don’t have a plan to present to you at this point.”
Placing more stress on the county budget, employee groups have asked for pay raises. It was a domino effect from the public-safety sales tax enacted in 2017 that funded raises for public safety workers, but left out other groups.
The most recent pleas have come from lawyers in the county counselor’s office, who say they prosecute serious offenses in municipal court and help train police at the academy and should be considered public safety workers, too.
“I got a call from a couple employees after you had a meeting with them,” Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-1st District, told Kreidler. “You said they are not going to ever get raises.”
Kreidler said, “What I told them was under the current mix of revenues and services that are being provided, there is no path to a pay raise because the structural deficit we’ve got will exist.”