Sour relations between Page and the County Council could continue into 2022
The St. Louis County Council ended its 2021 session by approving the county budget.
It came after a year that was personified by intense conflict between a majority of the council and St. Louis County Executive Sam Page — particularly over COVID-19 policy.
Council members gave final approval to a $918 million budget on Tuesday, including pay raises for county employees. For the most part, it puts off appropriating much of the county’s American Rescue Plan funding until next year. The council did give preliminary approval to spending around $11 million of federal relief funding to the county’s health department.
“We’re not in a position now where we’re going to rubber stamp,” said Council Chairwoman Rita Days, D-Bel Nor. “I think we’re going to be looking closely at all of the spending. This is an unprecedented amount of money that we’re going to be dealing with. And I think we have to be extremely careful with how we distribute those funds. Because we don’t want to have to pay back the federal government.”
In addition to the county budget, the council approved without opposition a temporary extension of the county’s eviction moratorium. Council members also allocated $5 million in American Rescue Plan funds to provide about 30 days of rental assistance.
“The bottom line is there’s a lot of people in our community right now that are in need. So much so that we have depleted the tens of millions of dollars from the first round of our emergency rental assistance,” said Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood. “We are expected to get more from the federal government. But there is a significant delay to the tune of at least another 30 days. If we want to keep people in their homes during Christmas for the holidays and make sure landlords get paid the money that is due to them, this is what we must do to move forward today.”
Tuesday’s action marked the end of what was often a contentious year between the council and Page. One particular source of conflict was whether to reimpose a county masking order amid the rise of the delta variant. After a Cole County court decision restricted the ability of health departments to issue COVID-19-related restrictions, St. Louis County ended up rescinding its requirement to wear masks indoors.
Page has said that he wants the council to vote on a masking requirement.
“I’ve asked the council to take up a mask order in whatever form it thinks the state requires," Page said at his weekly press conference on Monday. “Our number of cases continue to go up as more people gather indoors and travel for the holidays. And we’re now averaging 350 cases a day and expect to see a bump over Christmas. Now is not the time to let up on wearing masks.”
Days said she expects the issue of masking to come back to the forefront in 2022. But she added she wants to see a more multifaceted strategy to combat COVID-19 — including tackling health disparities in parts of north St. Louis County.
“I think when you’re talking about masks, that’s a very shortsighted way of handling this,” Days said. “We need to be focusing on the vaccinations and making sure that the vaccinations are in place. As well as the boosters for people who want to do that. COVID is going to be with us for the near future. And we have to figure out how to live with that.”
2022 is an election year when a number of county officials, including Days and Page, will be on the ballot. Page said he’s not optimistic that tensions between him and the council will ease.
“And I expect you’ll see a lot of activities and positions taken and politics that can be attributed to an election year,” Page said. “That exacerbates everything in the state legislature and certainly things that are done on the county council. Because the county council tends to get drawn into partisan things that are happening on the state and national level.”
Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, said if relations are going to improve, there will have to be as much robust communication as possible between the executive and legislative branches.
“The council has the legislative ability to appropriate money for this government — with or without the county executive,” Harder said. “The Stenger administration learned about that a long time ago and learned how to deal with the council. And this administration needs to learn how to deal with that as well.”
The council’s next meeting after its holiday recess is Jan. 4.
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum