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- December 22, 2021 - St. Louis County Council approves budget, but without federal funds for new programs
December 22, 2021 - St. Louis County Council approves budget, but without federal funds for new programs
December 22, 2021 | St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
Author/Byline: Nassim Benchaabane St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Page: A1 | Section: News
CLAYTON — The St. Louis County Council on Tuesday squeezed through most of a $918 million budget for 2022 before adjourning for the year, but not without a last fight over the exclusion of $18 million for new spending programs.
The move kicks into next year some key decisions affecting new county jobs and programs requested by County Executive Sam Page’s administration.
The move to delay action on part of the administration’s spending request was supported by Page critics on the council, who say they want to take a closer look at how federal relief funds are used. Page allies pushed back, arguing it left county departments uncertain over the fate of programs they said were necessary to improve government services.
“This is people’s lives and livelihoods that we’re toying with,” said Councilwoman Kelli Dunaway, D-2nd District.
But the council majority pushing for delay emphasized that no jobs would be cut by the move. They vowed to review each spending request as soon as possible in January and expected to approve most of them.
“This isn’t a done deal, this is to get us to the first of the year,” said Councilman Tim Fitch, R-3rd District.
Among the new spending stripped from the budget were requests for $2.1 million for Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell to hire 15 attorneys and 15 secretaries and $1 million for the Department of Transportation and Public Works meant for infrastructure repairs.
The cuts also took out $1.2 million for website upgrades by the Department of Information Technology, $948,000 for the Municipal Court system to add two judges and three clerks, and $659,900 to County Counselor Beth Orwick’s office that would cover the addition of two new attorneys, two paralegals and an investigator.
The council, however, left in a spending increase of about $291,000 total for the council’s own budget.
Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-5th District, said the council move was “a slap in the face” to county departments requesting their own increases for “what they need to be able to do their jobs better.”
Council Chair Rita Heard Days, D-1st District, argued the council was restoring money the council had in its budget in past years for an auditing team and for a policy director.
“To indicate we’re doing something that we’re not allowing other people to do is just not true,” Days said.
The debate, which took up much of the three-hour meeting Tuesday, reflected a contentious year in county politics, one that ended by the council majority kicking key budget decisions into 2022, an election year.
That the disagreements will spill into January was signaled by Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-6th District, who said there were certain spending requests he will continue to fight when the council returns in two weeks.
Clancy and Dunaway ultimately voted to approve the budget, arguing they were only doing so because it included $4.3 million to fund merit-based raises for county employees.
Clancy said the budget was “the bare minimum” needed for county services and expressed doubt the council majority would follow through on approving new programs next year.
“I’m going to vote ‘aye’ on that premise, and I hope I’m not sorry,” Clancy said.
COVID-19 FUNDING ALMOST RESTORED
The anti-Page majority, however, did vote to reverse a bungled budget cut last week that would have left the health department scrambling to fund crucial COVID-19 mitigation efforts.
The council voted 6-1 to fast-track first-round approval to put about $10.9 million in federal funds back in the public health department budget, specifically for crucial COVID-19 response efforts like testing and vaccine clinics.
The anti-Page majority stripped the funding last week in its plan to cut new programs. But the pandemic response measures weren’t new — they were continuing programs previously paid for through a 2020 package of federal emergency aid controlled by the county’s executive branch. Continuing the programs with new federal dollars required council approval.
But the council stopped short of giving the legislation final approval, which would have required a unanimous seven votes to suspend the council’s normal rules.
Trakas opposed the bill, accusing the health department of using the pandemic to grow its staff and operations permanently and wouldn’t scale back after the efforts were no longer necessary.
“What we’re doing here is perpetuating the incessant growth of the Department of Public Health,” Trakas said.
The council’s last meeting of the year was not without some agreement: The council voted unanimously to fast-track an emergency 15-day eviction moratorium and to approve $5 million in federal COVID-19 aid toward for rental aid through the next month.
The request, sought by Clancy, was meant to prevent evictions during cold winter months and a surge in COVID-19 cases, while the county finalizes a contract for a new vendor to help distribute federal rental aid to landlords and tenants.