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Workhouse budget cuts will help make up for $67M shortfall

CITY HALL – Even as the number of area COVID-19 cases continues to fall, the coronavirus is taking a ever-greater toll on St. Louis’ finances. On Wednesday, Mayor Lydra Krewson laid out the figures both medical and financial, in her regular Facebook press conference.

The number of people hospitalized in the region is now 232, she said, which continues a welcome downward trend since the high of 775 on  April 19. Thirty-one people are on ventilators; 17 new coronavirus patients were admitted; 27 were discharged.

“That is a credit to all of you,” Krewson said, praising those who continue to wear masks, maintain social distance and keep their circles of activity small.

It’s a long and ongoing process, she reminded listeners. After three months, “for most of us, these behaviors are pretty integrated into our everyday lives.”

That’s the good news. The bad news about COVID-19: The virus has caused “very, very serious revenue declines” for all governments, St. Louis’ among them.

Krewson noted that the city’s annual general revenue budget was about $519 million. In March, as the coronavirus pandemic began to hit the area, a preliminary budget guessed as a revenue hit of $50 million, with a worst-case scenario of $88 million. Now, as some of the effects can be tracked, Budget Director Paul Payne’s best guess is a $67 million shortfall, she said.

St. Louis has received some federal money through the CARES Act and other grants. But none of that federal money can be used to replace lost tax revenue, Krewson explained, so the city is facing “a lot of very serious cuts … across all departments.”

The city is required by its charter to have a balanced budget; it can’t run a deficit as the federal government can. So all departments face budget cuts.

One place the city can save money is at the Medium Security Institution – the Workhouse – she said. Its budget of $16 million would be cut to $8.8 million. Further cuts may be made, she added.

The savings would help pay for two plans: 1) body cameras and dash cameras for all officers, and 2) implementation of the Cops and Clinicians program in two police districts.

“We got those two things into the budget, and we’re happy that we did,” Krewson said.

The city has already run two pilot programs of Cops and Clinicians, which steers many police calls to social workers or mental health professionals instead of sending officers to address the problem.

The city’s 911 system gets about 300,000 calls each year, the mayor said, and many are for issues outside actual police work – problems of mental health, homelessness, neighborhood spats or substance abuse. The plan would put social workers and mental health workers in the Sixth and First police districts, at a cost of about $860,000.

“It will take a little bit to get those people hired and trained,” Krewson acknowledged. But it’s a start at refocusing the process of policing in St. Louis.

A listener asked whether police will be held accountable for their use – or neglect of the use – of the new body cameras.

Krewson was firm on that point. “That’s not a choice. … There would be repercussions for an officer who didn’t use them as intended, just like all policies the police department has.”

The cost of body cameras isn’t just their purchase price. Training in their use, data storage and retrieval will cost as much as buying the cameras in the first place, Krewson warned.

The police will need to “figure out what to do with all that video,” she explained.

But she said body cameras would be good for both officers and the public, perhaps helping to de-escalate tension and record what the officer is dealing with as well as what the other person is undergoing.

Krewson took other questions including about playgrounds, the airport and readiness for a new spike in coronavirus cases.

Playgrounds are still potential danger zones, according to Health Director Dr. Fredrick Echols, so there aren’t any plans to reopen them yet.

St. Louis Lambert International Airport is getting a little more traffic, but not much. In normal times, Krewson said, it sees about 45,000 travelers each day. One day a few weeks ago, only 800 people passed through the airport; right now, about 4,000 are flying. That loss of revenue is “a big part of the giant hole” in the city’s budget.

Everything circles back to COVID-19. Yes, the mayor said, the city is braced for a second wave of coronavirus. There are plans in place, with plenty of personal protection equipment stored up and tests enough for everyone.

Staff is home to The NorthSider and The SouthSider weekly community newspapers. The SouthSider publishes 25,000 copies every Tuesday. The NorthSider publishes 25,000 copies every Thursday. They are distributed at over 600 locations across St. Louis.

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