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St. Louis leaders face ‘sobering’ budget crunch amid coronavirus economic shutdown

St. Louis leaders face ‘sobering’ budget crunch amid coronavirus economic shutdown


ST. LOUIS — A hiring freeze, reduced pay raises and cuts in building demolition and capital spending are part of what Mayor Lyda Krewson called “a sobering budget” proposed Wednesday amid the coronavirus-spurred economic slowdown.

City Budget Director Paul Payne said the $1.12 billion plan for the fiscal year beginning in July aims to plug a $40 million budget gap due to ongoing declines in tax revenue since the COVID-19 scare began affecting the economy.

In addition, Payne presented a long list of what Krewson called “more draconian cuts” to be considered under another scenario based on a far worse $89 million revenue shortfall if the economy takes longer to rebound.

Those possibilities include 10- or 15-day unpaid furloughs for non-public safety employees, no employee raises at all and a suspension of street sweeping, summer day camps for kids in parks and some other programs.

The plan was submitted to the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, made up of the mayor, Comptroller Darlene Green and Aldermanic President Lewis Reed.

The board, the city’s top fiscal body, is scheduled to vote on the plan Monday. Then it goes to the Board of Aldermen, which will hold a round of hearings. Passage of a final version is required by the end of June; typically there is negotiation between the two boards before that happens.

The mayor said the proposal submitted Wednesday would retain key city services “to the most extent possible.”

“We’ve got to keep picking up the trash, you all know that,” Krewson said. “We’ve got to cut grass in parks, we’ve got to keep the streetlights on, we’ve got to provide police, fire, dispatch, EMS. All of those things are critically important day to day.”

She and Payne emphasized that changes may be needed in the plan as more tax collection numbers come in.

“It’s early,” Krewson said. “It’s not easy to predict and model what will happen (with revenue totals). We have to be a little nimble on this.”

The hiring freeze, already in place to deal with a $37 million general fund shortfall for the current fiscal year, exempts police and firefighters and Health Department employees.

Aldermen earlier this year, before the coronavirus downturn hit, had approved 3% pay raises for most city workers, up from the typical annual 1.5% hikes.

But the proposed budget has no money for the higher raises. And Payne recommends that city leaders hold off paying the 1.5% hikes until the city’s revenue picture becomes clearer.

Money available for demolition of derelict buildings, which has been a priority of the mayor’s, would be cut to $2 million from $4.2 million.

The affordable housing fund, some of which helps low-income people with rent, repairs and mortgage and utility payments, would drop by $1 million.

One proposed cut likely to stir consternation among aldermen would eliminate $7.5 million allocated for ward-level capital improvements.

Payne said the budget plan also would eliminate about 90 positions, most of them vacant. Many of those slots are at the city’s medium-security jail, also known as the workhouse, which has had declining prisoner counts over the past year. But the workhouse, which some activists want shut down, would remain open.

The plan calls for an overall reduction in city spending of about 2.9% from this fiscal year.

The budget plan largely doesn’t deal with the city’s ongoing health department expenses fighting the coronavirus.

City officials hope that federal aid funneled through the state will cover most of those costs but have yet to find out how much the city will receive.

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