January 19, 2023 - Page: Everything's on the table to fix St. Louis County budget

January 19, 2023 | St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Author/Byline: Kelsey Landis St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Page: A3 | Section: News

CLAYTON — St. Louis County's top elected official said he first plans to analyze department spending to fill a projected $41 million budget hole. But he acknowledged new revenues — NFL lawsuit money and marijuana sales taxes, for instance — could swell county accounts.

County Executive Sam Page said Wednesday his administration will focus this year on balancing the budget. The first step to addressing the county's persistent imbalance between revenue and spending will be to meet with each department to see where savings can be had. The meetings kick off on Jan. 24 with council Chair Shalonda Webb, a Democrat from unincorporated North County, and the county's budget experts.

"Going into the next budget cycle, where are there opportunities to make cuts?" Page said at a news conference Wednesday. "And if there aren't enough opportunities to make cuts to balance the budget, then we have to articulate that to people in our community to make sure they understand our reasoning for needing new revenue."

Fixing the deficit is key to providing county services such as policing, filling in potholes, plowing snow and offering free public health services. If the county doesn't take steps this year, it could burn through its reserves in the next few years.

Officials haven't said yet what expenses they plan to eliminate. Each department will have to make its case before Page and the council.

While the first meeting with Webb will be private, the county executive promised to involve the public in decisions about the budget. Page also urged council members to reach out to constituents.

Decisions on spending will be up to officials, but voters will have the final word on tax increases. The council approved a plan Tuesday to ask voters on the April 4 ballot to approve a 3% sales tax on marijuana. The levy would apply to marijuana sales in unincorporated parts of the county. It could generate an estimated $3 million a year, but that's a rough, early estimate and could change, said county budget Director Paul Kreidler.

Page and the council are also eyeing a tax on internet sales, much like the sales tax shoppers pay at local brick-and-mortar stores. Voters rejected a similar proposal last spring.

The county executive also mentioned for the first time potentially using money from a settlement against the NFL and Rams to temporarily balance the budget. The money is sitting in an investment fund for now.

"That'll certainly be a discussion that we will have with council members," Page said. "But these are one-time funds, and it really is the chance to think big and consider providing an endowment for generations to come."

Relations between Page and the council and among council members hinted at old alliances in the past few weeks, though elected officials promised unity at an inauguration event earlier this month. Council members were divided on who would serve as chair. And they split Tuesday night over an attempt by Page to obstruct Manchester's plan to expand its boundaries. Page brushed aside the spats.

"Last night, 95% of the things passed in complete agreement, which you'll never hear about," Page said. "But we have a lot of different people who are elected to represent different constituencies. They have different opinions, and we have to work through those, and we will occasionally disagree."