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Special Committee Questions County Budget Estimates

A special budget committee met Monday to look at the 2012 recommended St. Louis County budget.

The St. Louis County Council believes the recommended budget could be more accurately estimated to close a .

“We just feel with the history the way the budget is estimated that we can get through this and we’re going to have a sound, balanced budget next year,” said District 4 County Councilman Mike O’Mara. “We just think the estimates will come in in our favor to help out next year’s budget."

O’Mara said he thought the budget could be balanced through attrition without majorly affecting any department— holding back on positions that are funded and not filling those positions.

The county’s Chief Operating Officer Garry Earls and his department created the forecast that generates figures for the budget. He projected the total expenses for 2012 at about $311 million for the county’s three main funds. The expected revenue is estimated at $285 million, creating a $26 million deficit.

With the deficit, Earls and County Executive Charlie Dooley proposed a budget to the council that would close 23 St. Louis County Parks and eliminate 133 positions to balance the budget. The move has been met with and .

“I think it was a very aggressive and very politically-courageous motion for Mr. Dooley to take to propose as broad-reaching a reduction of parks that he did,” Earls said. “I believe he has certainly stepped up and tried to do the courageous thing for the sake of the people in the county. Could we have taken something else out of the budget? We could have closed off a police precinct I guess..."

“There are other alternatives we could do but as we compare parks versus those other alternatives, we always came down on the side of providing public safety, public health, public infrastructure at a higher degree… it’s a much higher priority,” he said.

Chairman Steve Stenger formed a special budget committee, which met Monday to pose questions to Earls and his staff.

“You just got done saying that all this budgeting is estimated and there are numbers in there that I think you can reduce your estimate to have a balanced budget,” District 3 representative Colleen Wasinger said.

The committee brought up several data points to Earls, who said his staff would research and respond to at the next budget committee meeting.

Wasinger asked Earls why money from the health fund could not be moved to the parks fund.

Earls said the fund had its own $6 million structural deficit and the administration considered health a priority over parks. Once money is moved into the health fund, it cannot be moved back, he said, according to state law.

“The reason that we have not considered moving money… is because we do not believe that’s a prudent way to manage the healthcare of our citizens in St. Louis County,” he said. “To take away health resources and spend it on parks… when you talk about priorities, our priority is going to be health over parks and we admit that.”

Wasinger asked Earls if his department was running alternative budget scenarios yet, and Earls said he was not, and would be waiting for the council.

Earls said it depended on the council’s proposal whether his department would make adjustments to the 2012 recommended budget.

“Are you willing to work— is there going to be a give and take here?” Wasinger asked.

“If you schedule a meeting at midnight on Sunday night, we will have a full staff here to respond to,” Earls said.

“I would also like to know you are committed to working with us so we do not have to accept this budget,” Wasinger responded.

After the meeting, O’Mara, who chairs the committee, said he felt confident they could reach a solution. The group will meet again Nov. 29 at 3:30 p.m. at 41. S Central Avenue in Clayton.

“We’ll have some pretty strong answers after next week. We think there’s money here and hold off here, and we'll balance the budget and be ready for next year,” O’Mara said.

The deadline for approving the budget is Dec. 31. If one is not passed, the county will operate under the current budget and the council will regularly approve spending.

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