CLAYTON — Less than three years after St. Louis County residents voted to create the Proposition P sales tax to support public safety, county officials have committed to spend too much, creating deficits projected to burn through a $20 million balance by 2023.
That’s according to figures provided last week to the County Council by Paul Kreidler, the county’s director of performance management and budget. His figures were based on an assumption that revenue from the countywide half-cent sales tax will remain flat over the next few years, at $51 million per year.
Members of the council said County Executive Sam Page’s administration should have informed them, but did not, about the impact of a three-year contract signed with 800 police officers in December that is the biggest factor driving up expenses to Prop P. Council members have not discussed any plan for addressing the situation.
“My understanding at the time was this was an agreement negotiated by the administration, the police board and submitted to us for approval, and if there had been any issues, I think that would have been on the budget director to make that known to us,” said Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-6th District, who was the council’s presiding officer at the time of the vote. “He clearly didn’t.”
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Asked for a response, Kreidler said he was instructed to direct questions to Doug Moore, a spokesman for Page.
Moore said in a statement that Prop P was passed to “ensure that our police officers and other public safety staff get the raises they deserve and that we can effectively retain and recruit officers and keep St. Louis County safe,” but that its “purpose was never to build a large fund balance.”
Moore said Kreidler’s office had developed a cost estimate for the police contract and shared it with Page’s office on Oct. 30. He did not explain why that analysis had not been shared outside Page’s office.
In a 7-0 vote on Dec. 17, the council reached a three-year agreement with the association. The first year provides raises for officers with college degrees, ranging from $1,200 for an associate’s degree to $7,200 for a doctorate. The second and third years provide 3% raises across the board.
Members of the council said Page’s staff asked them to take the unusual step of advancing new legislation to a final vote, cutting out a week from the normal course of passing a bill, to put the contract in place by the end of the year.
Lisa Clancy, D-5th District, who became council chairwoman on Jan. 7, said on Monday: “The council did not have the best information about this at the time. All of us have some regrets about how quickly this happened last fall.”
She said: “In hindsight, now, I’ve got a lot of questions about what conversations existed between (Trakas) as presiding officer, the budget office, the police department and the county executive’s office.”
The council’s budget policy director, Chris Grahn-Howard, said on Sunday he wasn’t given time to analyze the financial impact of the contract. “I’m limited to reviewing what the council asks me to look into. I wasn’t asked to look into the cost of the” contract. “Given the timing of the bill, I wasn’t given time to look into it before it was passed.”
Councilman Tim Fitch, R-3rd District, was the first member of the council to ask the Page administration what was happening with Prop P. In response to an email from Fitch on Jan. 16, Kreidler wrote: “With the recent approval of the new agreement for commissioned officers, Prop P is over-budgeted.”
Fitch wrote to Director of Administration Tod A. Martin in response: “I was not advised our approval of the police contract would cause a deficit in the Prop P fund.” And he called for public hearings on the condition of Prop P.
After Fitch’s critical comments, Page’s staff pointed fingers back at the council for holding a special meeting on Dec. 26 and voting 5-0 to include $1.3 million for raises for employees of the St. Louis County Family Court. Trakas said the council had been acting on the advice of the county counselor’s office to provide the raises rather than getting into a legal dispute with the court.
But figures released by Kreidler show the family court raises are not a significant part of the problem, equal to just one-quarter of the projected deficit in 2021 and about 15% of the projected deficit in 2022.
By comparison, the police raises are bigger than the projected deficit in each of the next four years.
The deficit projections also include raises Page has asked the council to approve for other groups in the police department, including civilian employees and crime lab staff. And it includes the administration’s plans to ask the council later this year for authorization to sell $13.4 million in bonds to build two new precinct buildings. But they do not include a three-year contract with 109 police sergeants that is currently under negotiation.
Kreidler broke down the Prop P projections to the council members in a hearing on Feb. 24, explaining that he held revenues flat in projections “because that’s an unknown, whereas the commitments against the tax are known.”
He said the $20 million balance in the Prop P fund will be gone by the end of 2023, “and we will have to identify other general revenue fund sources to cover that … going forward.”
At that meeting, Matt Crecelius, business manager for the St. Louis County Police Officers Association, emphasized that police raises were not the primary burden on Prop P, it was the council using the tax to fund items such as police cars and computers that have traditionally been funded by the county’s general tax revenue fund.
“I continue to see these lines on expenditures for uniforms, equipment and everything else,” he told the council. “All I can do is implore you to examine these expenditures more closely.”
Councilman Mark Harder, R-7th District, echoed his concerns, saying the council could try to move some of the nonsalary items to be paid with other tax revenue.
“I don’t see this as Armageddon,” he said.
But Kreidler’s analysis of Prop P expenditures indicates that nonsalary items make up a small portion of the overall cost.
In 2022, police will get 88% of the county’s Prop P spending, or $52.4 million, with the rest going to the prosecuting attorney, municipal court, justice services, family court and the county counselor.
Of the police department’s share, 91%, or $47.9 million, is scheduled to be spent on new positions and salaries. Everything else, including body cameras and a gunshot detection system, amount to just 9%, or $4.4 million.
Fitch said in an interview on Sunday that the council “would have expected the administration to tell us, when they asked us to pass that agreement in one night, the impact before we passed it. They had to know; they are in control of the budget.”
Updated at 6:17 p.m.