November 29, 2022 - St. Louis County looks to cut positions, close budget deficit

November 29, 2022 | St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

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

CLAYTON — St. Louis County leaders will consider cutting positions to address a $41 million hole in next year's budget — and that still wouldn't be enough to solve the deficit.

The County Council's budget committee will propose the idea to only fill one-quarter of the county's existing vacancies, and the full council could discuss it as early as Tuesday, said Council Chair Rita Heard Days.

"Everything is on the table," Days said. "If the council wants to bring forth a different idea, they're welcome to do that."

The proposal would affect job openings in departments funded by the county's two biggest pools of money: the general and health funds, which pay for police and public health. If an office reached the 25% limit, they would still be able to ask the council for additional hires.

But even if the committee's idea gets approved by the council and County Executive Sam Page, it will only address a little more than half of the deficit, according to Councilman Tim Fitch. The county will either have to cover the rest of the hole with reserves, cuts or a tax increase.

"It's fish-or-cut-bait time," said Chris Grahn-Howard, the council's budget coordinator.

For more than a decade, the county has relied on temporary measures to fill gaps in the budget: It has spent down reserves, frozen pay and shifted money between funds, among other measures. Federal pandemic relief money has covered holes for the past two years.

But 2023 is the last year the county can squeeze by, said county budget Director Paul Kreidler.

A few things caused the deficit. Missouri law limits the amount of property tax money local governments can collect in years where values go up significantly. That happened in four of the past seven years, preventing St. Louis County from banking on windfall revenues, Kreidler said. Inflation also made providing county services more expensive.

Kreidler has urged the council to decide if it has a "revenue problem" or a "spending problem."

Republican Councilman Mark Harder of Ballwin made his preference for cutting clear with a giant pair of scissors at a recent meeting.

"We are at the end of the road, and we have to make some big cuts," Harder said.

But the county should consider finding new revenues because cuts will harm valuable county services, said Democratic Councilwoman Lisa Clancy of Maplewood.

"There's not a lot of fat on there," Clancy said.

Clancy said the county could try asking voters again to approve a tax on out-of-state internet purchases equal to the amount placed on purchases at brick-and-mortar stores. A measure on the April 5 ballot this year failed.  Days, a Democrat from Bel Nor, said tax increases are a last resort.