December 14, 2022 - St. Louis County passes budget. But shortfall is worse than expected.

December 14, 2022 | St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Author/Byline: Kelsey Landis St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Page: A1 | Section: News

CLAYTON — St. Louis County Council on Tuesday approved a budget that cuts hundreds of empty positions, but it still comes nowhere close to solving a budget problem now even bigger than expected.

In recent weeks, the council proposed cutting new positions, hundreds of job vacancies and some spending from the 2023 budget in an effort to chip away at a $41 million projected difference between what the county spends and brings in.

But it ends up that the county budget director had already factored in most of the job vacancies. And that means all of those trims, which the county agreed to in recent talks, will only reduce spending by roughly $3 million to $5 million, according to budget Director Paul Kreidler, much less than council members hoped.

"I wish it had a bigger effect," Republican Councilman Mark Harder of Ballwin said at a budget meeting last week. "But it sounds like it doesn't have the effect that we originally intended."

The council voted 4-3 in favor of the budget after a last-minute scuffle over cutting 16 new jobs in the jail worth $653,000 and $1.6 million from the judiciary budget, which could have caused legal trouble for the county. The final budget added both those costs back in, with council members Rita Heard Days, Ernie Trakas and Mark Harder voting against the bill.

The budget still cuts 375 vacancies worth about $27 million, but the budget office had already included that figure in its estimated deficit for next year, Kreidler said. The office projects spending partly on the likelihood of filling vacant positions. Departments such as police and public health have had chronic difficulty hiring, so the budget office estimated they wouldn't fill many vacancies anyway.

So the proposals don't cut the deficit by more than half, as originally thought.

But council Chair Rita Heard Days, a Democrat from Bel-Nor, said she hopes the cuts send the message to departments that they need a "different kind of culture."

"Right now when you ask for zero increase, I don't think the departments really understand what you're saying," Days said. "They're going to continue to add as they see fit."

Meanwhile, the county will draw from reserves to balance its budget next year.

Its reserves have been temporarily boosted by federal COVID-19 relief money and soon a settlement from a lawsuit against the NFL and Rams. Money from an opioid lawsuit settlement and federal infrastructure dollars are also on the way.

But there's no permanent solution in sight for the county's spending and revenue problems. If the county keeps spending at the current rate, it's going to burn through its reserves in the next few years.

The council hasn't even agreed if it has a spending or revenue problem. Trakas believes cutting is the answer. Democratic Councilwoman Lisa Clancy of Maplewood has said the county should explore new revenue streams, possibly from taxing online retail purchases.

Democratic Councilwoman Shalonda Webb of Florissant said those are "complicated decisions" that need to be made over the next year.

"We need to make decisions not just from the perspective of the budget but how many people we now have to take care of," Webb said. "I do believe that we will have to work in parallel. We need to discuss those things simultaneously because as you cut you need to look at revenue opportunities simultaneously, not after everything being cut."

Beginning in January, council members and County Executive Sam Page will meet monthly to develop ideas for resolving the remaining budget deficit.