One of the nation’s premier credit rating agencies praised St. Louis County government for budgetary management but a St. Louis County councilman says it’s not all good news.
The Standard and Poor’s (S&P) Financial Services LLC report, issued on Nov. 6, commended the County’s government, for its strong budgetary performance, flexibility and “very strong liquidity.”
The report noted the County’s cash reserves of over $100 million was more than double the recommended governmental “best practices” reserve range of 5 to 15 percent.
St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger on Tuesday said it was a great privilege to be recognized by a known credit agency.
“St. Louis County government, like the County itself, is in solid financial shape,” Stenger said. “We have put measures in place to assure that our government will continue to live within its means while supplying the excellent services that our residents have come to expect. And we are not going to raise taxes to do so.”
St. Louis County is the only County in the state of Missouri to receive an AAA bond rating, according to County officials. This status is awarded to less than 8 percent of governmental organizations in the country.
According to Stenger’s office, major corporations have invested $4 billion in capital improvements and expansions in St. Louis County. These investments have generated about 5,700 new jobs and retained around 21,000 more.
But Councilman Sam Page said Stenger’s own budget stated that it would increase taxes if the County doesn’t change its spending plans.
“Page 34 of the Stenger budget in his words, tells us that the County is headed toward a tax increase or reduction in services if we don’t change County spending habits, his words,” Page said. “The County Council, by a 6-1 vote, is choosing a different pathway. Freeze spending at 2017 levels and ask departments to explain cost overruns with supplemental budget requests to the County Council.”
According to estimates from the budget director, the County’s 2018 budget will allocate over $18 million from the reserves fund to cover spending. If spent, this would leave only $9 million and would put the County in the position to either raise revenue (taxes) or cut services, which Stenger has publicly rejected.
The newly proposed budget that was passed on Tuesday will implement a spending freeze which will allow the same spending in 2017 and a 5 percent cushion. According to Councilman Mark Harder’s office, this new budget proposal should not result in any layoffs or reduction in services.
Page also said that St. Louis County Auditor Mark Tucker’s office has an audit plan but needs more staff in his office. Stenger and Page have publicly feuded over the auditor’s staffing issues, with Stenger saying the County lacks an efficient county auditor in Tucker.
In October, Page along with St. Louis County Councilmembers Ernie Trakas, Rochelle Walton-Gray, and Hazel Erby filed a suit in the St. Louis County Circuit Court to prevent Stenger from blocking the hiring of more staff.
“We increased funding for the County Auditor’s Office to bring this office closer to best staffing practices,” Page said, “The county auditor has posted his audit plan on his web page. We will continue out litigation against County Executive Stenger to prevent him from blocking the (execution) of the auditor’s plans.”
In September, Stenger said that the St. Louis County Auditor’s office previously operated close to a decade with just two audit staff and the problem lies with Tucker.
“I don’t think that some members of the County Council have demonstrated that they are good stewards of taxpayer money. I don’t know if they’re taking frankly their job as council members seriously enough,” Stenger said. “This is a very serious position in St. Louis County government and is currently occupied by an individual who doesn’t show up for the job, who doesn’t meet the basic charter requirements and he hasn’t produced a single audit in six months.”