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Sparks fly over budget shortfall as city estimate board meets

CITY HALL – The three members of the city’s top budgeting board spent more than an hour Wednesday in a heated argument about what to do about a $5.7 million shortfall in the budget for the fiscal that year starting July 1.

At times, Comptroller Darlene Green and Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed spoke over each other for minutes at a time. But by the time the Board of Estimate and Apportionment ended its meeting, nobody’s mind had changed.

Mayor Tishaura Jones and Green argued that the estimate board and the Board of Aldermen should work quickly to fix the shortfall and approve an amended budget, called Board Bill 1, before July 1.

“I was hopeful that we’d be further along on Board Bill 1 by now,” Jones said.

But Reed said there wasn’t time to do that before July 1 under aldermanic rules. He said that if the Board of Aldermen didn’t pass a budget, the original spending package proposed by the estimate board would become law. Then a bill could be passed fixing the problem after July 1.

“My name is on the bill,” Reed said. “I’m the prime sponsor of the bill, and I’m telling you categorically right now, that there is nothing that you are going to say to make me move forward with a bill that you all somehow put a $5.7 million hole in.”

Green retorted: “It is unfortunate that we have this problem with the president of the board [of aldermen], and I’m hopeful that we can move forward in a manner that is more professional.”

“So it’s my problem now?” Reed slammed back.

The impasse began when the aldermanic Ways and Means (budgeting) Committee learned that federal detainees would no longer be kept at city correctional facilities. The loss of payments for that service would cost $5.7 million in revenue.

Then last week, Reed sent a letter to Jones asking for her to identify $5.7 million in cuts the aldermanic board could make. The Board of Aldermen can make cuts but not additions.

On Monday, Jones sent a letter to Reed explaining how to close the gap.

Jones asked Reed to have an amendment made to the budget to add $4.3 million in revenue from unspent money from a grant for fire and EMS and $300,000 in revenue from new American Rescue Plan (COVID-19 stimulus) money. The money also would cut $1.1 million in the budget for expenditures for detainees. 

The estimate board would have to approve all additions. 

“We had an unprecedented action taken this budget year that I have never seen in my history, where we voted on a budget with revenue streams in that budget, and one of the revenue streams was cut off during the time the budget was being debated at the Board of Aldermen,” Reed said. “The Board of Aldermen just happened on it through questioning. We had no idea that we had been sent an unbalanced budget.”

Jones said that after the estimate board approved the budget, the federal government notified the city that it would no longer house its inmates in St. Louis facilities. Those kinds of changes happen with a budget, she said.

“Budgets aren’t static documents. They ebb and flow. Revenue comes and revenue goes, and the federal government decided to remove their detainees from our facilities after May 1,” Jones explained.

Green said this was the first year in her 25 years as comptroller that the Board of Aldermen hadn’t brought the budget back to the estimate board.

“I think that’s a huge issue,” she said.

“It’s stunning to me that you mentioned everything except for the fact that a major revenue source was removed,” Reed responded.

The discussion started when Jones and Green voted to table three measures to give the Bi-State Development Agency a total of $41 million in money from dedicated sales taxes for public transportation for the upcoming fiscal year.

In voting to oppose tabling the measures, Reed said, “Bi State needs the money, but if you want to play with public transportation, play with it.” He said the budget had nothing to do with those items.

But Green said that city taxpayers would want to have their own services funded before an outside agency such as Bi-State was funded.

“We thought that we’d be further along with Board Bill 1 by this time,” Jones said. “We need to take care of home first.”

Jones also said the Bi-State funding would not stop because of what the estimate board did.

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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