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City struggles with revenue shortfall brought by pandemic

CITY HALL – After the fiscal devastation brought by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, St. Louis is in a weakened position to put together a budget for the coming year.

Fortunately, it can add $17.3 million from the American Rescue Plan Act to balance its general fund for items such as police, fire, streets and parks. With that amount, total general fund revenue would be $511 million, up 6.2 percent. The city assumes revenue will increase as the pandemic goes away.

“If revenues exceed estimates, you would not need to draw as much of this,” city Budget Director Paul Payne told members of the aldermanic Ways and Means Committee Wednesday, at a hearing on the city’s budget for the 2021-2022 starting July 1. The Ways and Means Committee reviews finance matters.

“It’s an unusual situation where we’ve never had that kind of safety, not before, if you need it,” Payne said.

For the general fund, 2021-2022 revenue without the $17.3 million from the American Rescue Fund Plan Act,is projected at $494.2 million, or $35.4 million under the 2018-19 fiscal year. Operating fund revenue, which includes money for general government, the airport, the water division and other city programs, is $1.153 billion, up 3.9 million from this year.

Not surprisingly, restaurants and hotel tax revenue was sharply off in the first three quarters of 2020-21. 

Estimates before the start of 2020-2021 were that hotel gross receipts taxes would decline by 60.1 percent. The actual decrease was 72.3 percent through the end of the third quarter. The actual declines were 33.5 percent in the first quarter, 71.8 percent in the second quarter and 63.5 percent in the third quarter. 

Restaurant gross receipts taxes were down 36.4 percent in the first three quarters, compared to an estimated decline of 49.5 percent made before the year started. The first quarter was down 51.6 percent, the second was down 42.6 percent and the third quarter was down 31.7 percent. 

During discussion at the meeting, some aldermen expressed concern about the elimination of $4 million for 98 unfilled positions in the proposed police budget.

Plans are for $1.5 million to go to the city’s Affordable Housing Commission, $1 million each for a victim support unit and case management and $.5 million for affirmative litigation in the city’s law department..

Some committee members said the money for the 98 unfilled positions in the past had often gone to cover the cost of excess police overtime. 

Payne said the police department had been overspending its overtime budget by $3 or $4 million a year and using its budget for unfilled positions to make up the shortfall.

“With the elimination of the 98 positions, you don’t have that flexibility,” Payne said. “So you cannot spend overtime.”

But 22nd Ward Alderman Jeffrey Boyd said it was inevitable that the police department would keep going over budget.

“Other departments will be shortchanged, because we don’t have a choice. If we want to make sure that our neighborhoods are safe, we’re going to be forced to pay overtime,” Boyd said. “I have a grave concern about public safety on our streets with not being able to pay overtime.”

Also, with savings from the proposed closure of Medium Security Institution, the city would spend $1.4 for contracts to house detainees, along with $1.8 million for a correctional investigation unit and supportive re-entry.

The police department would spend about $2.7 million for body cameras.

Officials haven’t yet determined the date of the reopening. Reed’s legislative director, Mary Goodman, said in an email that the details were still being fleshed out. “Personnel will meet in a few weeks to finalize the details,” she explained.

Being in live meetings of the Board of Aldermen will be a new experience for Fourth Ward Alderwoman Dwinderlin Evans and 12th Ward Alderman William Stephens. Both took office after the webinar meetings started. Evans was elected in a special election on June 23, 2020, and Stephens was elected in the April general election. 

“Everything else is opening back up,” Evans said. 

Evans said she grew weary of “sitting in that box in one spot.” She noted that one day recently she was in meetings from 8:30 a.m. until about 4:50 p.m. 

If she had to get up from her chair, “I would close off my video,” Evans explained. She said she wasn’t worried about the health risks of going back to in-person meetings.

“I’m going to do my due diligence to stay safe,” Evans said. “I’ve had both of my shots, and I will continue to wear my mask.”

Stephens is also looking forward to meeting in the aldermanic chambers.

“I think it’s the next step in the recovery from the pandemic,” Stephens said, adding that it was on track with the world emerging from a really bad past year. 

Stephens wants to make sure that Board of Aldermen staff is comfortable with any change; he said that he had been vaccinated and that if they were comfortable, then he was. 

In a webinar meeting, Stephen noted, he can grab a coffee at home. But he acknowledged that he could also do that during a meeting at City Hall.

Meanwhile, Boyd, who has long served on the board, is anxious to return to normal.

“I am looking very forward to going back to in person meetings,” he said. But Boyd suggested it would be good if all aldermen would show proof of being vaccinated. 

In the webinar meetings, most people don’t pay attention, Boyd complained. “You can’t see what they’re doing because they turn their video off.”

Boyd added that he was considering going to live ward meetings in July.

Jim Merkel

southsidemerkel@gmail.com Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit www.jimmerkelthewriter.com.

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