Page wants to use federal COVID relief funds to plug St. Louis County budget holes
St. Louis County Executive Sam Page wants to use the bulk of federal coronavirus relief money to plug budget holes, a move he said will forestall cuts to services or tax increases for several years.
But the move is getting a cool reaction from some members of the St. Louis County Council, who want to use money from what’s known as the American Rescue Plan for one-time investments in the county’s housing and small businesses.
St. Louis County is slated to receive $193 million in American Rescue Plan funds over the next several years. And some of the money can be used to backfill budget deficits that were caused by the pandemic.
In a letter attached to his proposed 2022 budget, Page wrote that accounts funding the county’s general governmental expenses and health-related initiatives will have major deficits over the next two years. That’s why Page wrote that he wants the council “to consider allocating the remaining unappropriated balance” of the American Rescue Plan funds to fill those budgetary gaps.
“This proposed financial plan will provide limited, temporary relief to the underlying imbalance between annual revenue received and the costs of providing government services to our residents,” Page wrote.
During a press conference earlier this week, Page said that this year he’s asking the council to allocate about $85 million in American Rescue Plan funds to fill budget gaps.
“That will allow us to continue funding our basic services in St. Louis County, primarily public health and public safety,” Page said. “And it will allow us to avoid difficult conversations because of lost revenue or property tax increases.”
While several council members said that some of the rescue funds would go to stave off budgetary gaps, they stressed that it’s unlikely all of the remaining money would be used for that purpose.
Council Chairwoman Rita Days, D-Bel Nor, said her colleagues “are not inclined” to follow through on Page’s plan.
“That could change as things move on, we don’t know that,” Days said. “But at this particular point, there is not the inclination to do that.”
Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-St. Louis County, said the idea that the council would allocate the full amount of rescue money just to make up for lost revenue is “not realistic.”
“I think on a reasoned basis, if the county executive came to the council with specific amounts to be designating for supplanting, there may be some way of reaching common ground,” Trakas said.
Trakas said rescue plan funds could free up money elsewhere in the budget for a host of one-time spending options, such as tearing down debilitated homes in unincorporated areas or bolstering aspects of the county’s public health system.
“I’m talking about existing problems that are chronic and have needed addressing for some time,” Trakas said. “That’s what I think these funds, in my opinion anyway, should be used for.”
Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, said there’s still time in the budget process to reach a compromise between Page and members of the council. She said it’s possible that the council “could fill our budget holes” with rescue money, then “appropriate from our general fund some of the needs in St. Louis County related to programs and services.”
Even if Page’s plan is adopted by the council, members said it doesn’t solve long-term revenue and expenditure problems.
Page himself acknowledged that reality when he wrote “when the federal funds are exhausted, likely by 2024, we will be forced to identify additional revenue sources to maintain the services we provide.” That could include, Page wrote, property tax hikes and a ballot item to allow the collection of tax revenue on Internet retailers that don’t have a physical presence in the county.
Days said the county needs to have tough conversations about curtailing spending.
“We cannot continue to tax and whatever — we can’t do that,” she said. “We have to make some very, very hard decisions. And this is going to be the year to do it, I’m afraid.”
Clancy added that there could be an opportunity to do a “thoughtful evaluation of our expenses and where we’re getting our value.”
“I heard some energy from across the aisle for that in some of our discussions recently,” Clancy said. “So perhaps that’s something we can be thinking about as we embark on this conversation.”
The council has until the end of the year to approve the 2022 budget.
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