October 12, 2022 - St. Louis County considers service cuts, tax hikes to fill $41 million budget hole

October 12, 2022 | St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Author/Byline: Kelsey Landis klandis@post-dispatch.com | Page: A1 | Section: News

CLAYTON — St. Louis County officials, faced with a $41 million budget deficit, are poised to cut county services, raise taxes, or both.

The County Council met Tuesday to begin reconciling next year's budget. For more than a decade, it has relied on temporary fixes to fill gaps in the budget. Since 2009, it has frozen pay, laid off employees and shifted money between funds. Pandemic relief has covered holes for the last two years.

This year, the County Council will have to decide how deep to cut, and if to offset the cuts by raising taxes, said council budget coordinator Chris Grahn-Howard.

"I've had several council members ask me, ‘Chris, is there a silver bullet?' There is not one," Grahn-Howard said. "Every decision is going to be hard. There's not any good news here and I wish there was."

The shortfall comes from property tax reductions mandated by the state in four of the last seven years. Inflation and the pandemic also made the cost of doing business higher. Projected tax revenue went up slightly for the 2023 fiscal year, which begins Jan. 1., but it's not enough to cover the deficit.

A $1 billion budget recommended by County Executive Sam Page's office relies on covering the deficit by spending from reserves. By the end of this year, the county will have about $93 million left in reserves in its general revenue fund, said county budget Director Paul Kreidler. At this pace, those reserves will run out by 2025, Kreidler said.

The county will not be able to raise taxes, alone, to solve the problem: State law caps personal and real estate property taxes without a vote of the people. And even if they raised taxes to the maximum amount, it would only generate an additional $16 million, less than half of the deficit for next year, Grahn-Howard said.

Most of the council members agreed after years of dodging the problem, the county will have to make tough decisions this year.

"It just seems we're kicking the can down the road and we have to make some decisions, and in my mind, very quickly before we fall off a cliff," said Council Chair Rita Days, a Democrat who represents portions of North County.

The council will identify potential cuts as they hear from department heads in the coming weeks about their budgets. One-time windfalls from additional pandemic relief money and settlements from an opioid lawsuit and a suit against the NFL could help boost the county's bottom line next year, but those solution would only "buy us some time," said Republican Councilman Ernie Trakas, who represents much of South County.

Republican Councilman Mark Harder said the county has to "get serious" about making cuts.   "It's going to be bloody," said Harder, who represents parts of West County. "It's going to be uncomfortable for some people. But if we don't, we won't have a government to even provide the services we have today going forward."