November 30, 2022 - Proposed cuts to St. Louis County budget include jail, police and public health staff

November 30, 2022 | St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Author/Byline: Kelsey Landis St. Louis Post-Dispatch - Reporter Taylor Tiamoyo Harris contributed to this report.

CLAYTON — A St. Louis County Council committee has suggested cutting hundreds of positions in the county jail, police department and public health department in an attempt to fill a $41 million hole in next year's budget, according to a memo from the council budget director.

The council budget committee recommended cutting 375 vacancies and 24 new jobs included in County Executive Sam Page's proposed budget, which the council considers and amends before producing a final budget.

Page's budget relied on county reserves and added 16 new corrections officers for the jail, five new staffers for the auditor's office and three new administrative positions. The recommendation eliminates all of them, saving the county $1.5 million. It also cuts 75% of the county's nearly 500 vacant positions, worth $27 million. The cuts wouldn't affect raises planned for next year, according to the memo.

"We must get control of this budget," Council Chair Rita Heard Days said at a meeting Tuesday. "We do that, as a council, with grave concern for our employees and for our taxpayers alike."

The committee provides feedback on the county executive's budget, then the full council decides how to amend the budget for a final version. Days introduced a bill with the measures, but it has several more steps before becoming final — if it gets that far. A majority on the council and Page have to approve it. A final budget must be approved by the end of the year or else stopgap funding measures are triggered.

Many of the proposed cuts were made to public safety, the county's biggest expense.

The 16 new officers included in Page's budget were added to reduce overtime and boost the jail's workforce after years of complaints over inmate deaths and understaffing. Just last week, an inmate assaulted a jail officer who was supervising 65 maximum security prisoners alone.

The new hires would cost the county just under $942,000. But with overtime taken into consideration if no new positions are added, savings would amount to roughly $635,000.

Democratic Councilwoman Lisa Clancy of Maplewood expressed concern about the cuts to new jail positions.

"These are not positions that have been open for years," Clancy said. Rather, the positions were added in response "to some very real issues we have in our justice center."

Jail Director Scott Anders said the positions were recommended by an independent audit.

"We have worked hard to hire and retain corrections officers and we are still short staffed," Anders said. "If we are unable to fill 16 positions, I'm concerned that it will result in low morale, higher turnover and force us to look at our policies designed to keep our employees and residents as safe as possible."

The budget committee, made of two Republicans and two Democrats, recommended eliminating 101 vacancies in the police department. As of Tuesday, there were 82 police officer vacancies, according to the department.

The committee also proposed declining a request from the county auditor for almost $534,000 to hire new staff, which would contribute to nearly doubling the office's budget. In October, Auditor Toni Jackson faced questioning over staff departures, a lack of regular audits, and suggesting a raise for herself in her office's budget.

Republican Councilman Ernie Trakas of unincorporated South County said the cuts don't go far enough.

"The cuts are not sufficient, and it's the responsibility of this council to make sure that whatever is finally passed leaves the county with a zero budget deficit," Trakas said.

Days wants the council to meet with the county executive monthly going forward to look for permanent solutions. A spokesman for Page said the discussion will continue.

"The structural deficit remains unchanged by removing vacant positions," spokesman Doug Moore said.

The committee suggested cutting $175,000 for three new vehicle purchases for Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell's office after it bought two SUVs earlier this year. The two Republicans on the budget committee, councilmen Tim Fitch and Mark Harder, criticized those purchases in a hearing earlier this month. Democrats Days and Shalonda Webb are also on the committee.

Other proposed cuts include:

• $800,000 for demolishing abandoned buildings, a cost that will be paid for with federal COVID-19 relief money.

• $385,000 for developing vehicle charging infrastructure.

• $30,000 for miscellaneous attorney contracts.

• 78 vacancies in the Department of Public Health worth $5.4 million.

• 29 vacancies in the Department of Transportation and Public Works worth $1.8 million.

Councilwoman Shalonda Webb of Florissant said the council awaits feedback from specific departments on how the cuts would impact them.