A County Council in Disarray
The 2017 legislative session for the St. Louis County Council can be described with one word: disarray. County Executive Steve Stenger’s decision to challenge former County Executive and fellow party member Charlie Dooley in what turned out to be a highly combative primary created a split in the democrat party at the County level. Two current democratic council members, Sam Page and Hazel Erby, appear to have taken this challenge personally and have been unrelenting in challenging any and every attempt Stenger makes to pursue his agenda. Stenger’s embroilment in controversy surrounding his sponsorship of legislation that financially benefited some of his largest donors has weakened and diminished his influence even further and provided Page and Erby cover in enacting their agenda of revenge.
Stenger’s understanding of policy and government finances is vastly superior to all of his most vocal opponents. The vast majority of his proposals are cohesive initiatives with defined and measurable benchmarks for success and buy-in from County staff.
Stenger’s Uninspired Middle-Management Approach Leaves a Void in Leadership
A deep understanding of the organization for which you work and the ability to implement policies that gain employee buy in and produce results is a fantastic way to measure the success of a middle manager. By all of these measures Steve Stenger would be extremely successful in a middle management role heading one of the County’s departments.
Leadership on the other hand, requires foresight, vision and the ability to tactfully develop working relationships with the competing interests represented in an organization. In the setting of a municipal government these competing interests include, fellow elected officials, donors, department heads and most importantly voters. During Stenger’s first term in office he has shown an inability to harness the negative forces in and around the St. Louis County Council in a way that allows him to construct and implement a cohesive positive agenda. Stenger’s brash and derogatory demeanor toward colleagues and his inability to shape the narrative surrounding his initialites demonstrates a complete lack of leadership ability. Stenger has consistently lost the narrative battle with Council Chair Sam Page even when he is on the right side of the argument, has been unable to define a clear vision for his agenda and seemed disinterested in communicating with his democratic colleagues to unite around a common purpose.
This void of leadership has been filled by the loudest council member of the night. Long standing procedures in which proposed bills were discussed in detail and debated in private with staff and then reviewed by the County legal team have been discarded. Council meetings have become a hodge-podge of unrelated proposals added to the agenda at the whim of any media hungry council member making the council unpredictable and creating a decision making body that is completely out of touch with it’s department heads and electorate.
The most recent and egregious example of this governmental circus is the approval of the 2018 budget.
2018 Budget Battle
County budget guidelines require that the County Executive go through an extensive eight month collaborative process with the budgeting teams of every department in order to ensure accurate projections and provide department heads with the certainty needed to efficiently fund and complete planned projects as outlined in the table to the left.
This budgeting process has allowed the County to maintain a AAA bond rating for decades and accumulate rainy day reserves more than double the S&P Rating Agency’s requirement to meet their “Best Practices” metric.(*) Using conservative revenue estimates and not accounting for the cost savings from the County’s practice of attrition (not hiring to replace a position after an individual retires) is done to create room unexpected increases in spending and to ensure financial stability. Almost anyone familiar with government budgeting is aware of this practice while the general public likely is not.
This budgeting process has allowed the County to maintain a AAA bond rating for decades and accumulate rainy day reserves more than double S&P Rating Agency’s requirement to meet their “Best Practices” metric
During the 2018 budget debate Council Chairman Sam Page took advantage of the public’s limited understanding of government procedures to score a political win for himself by misleading the public to believe the County was facing a looming financial crisis.
Chairman Page and Hazel Erby (both Dooley loyalists) teamed up with the republican Council Members to push the narrative of a pending financial crisis and used this narrative to undermine Stenger. They successfully rushed through dozens of budget amendments with a veto proof super majority that create uncertainty, decrease morale, impede the ability of staff to plan ahead and provides no assurance actual spending will be decreased over the year. I take a closer look at the Council debate (or lack of) that led to the approval of the 2018 budget and the careless process in which it was reviewed.
Transcript of Approval of $309 million General Fund Budget (1)
Chairman Sam Page is a medical doctor by trade with no experience in a finance or accounting leadership role. With no formal training in government accounting or government law Sam Page filed dozens of amendments to the proposed budget without consulting the head of any department or receiving a legal opinion from the County Attorney. The final amendments were filed at 5:15 p.m. on the night of the amendment vote. After reading the bill out aloud for the first time he called for a vote stating:
“I’d be glad to answer any questions about it. This, basically a substitute bill for the general fund which freezes spending at 2017 levels and as a general rule, and then adds 5% as a cushion”.
In response Councilman Dolan (the only remaining supporter of the original budget which was created using the exhaustive 8 month process outlined above) stated “the Post-Dispatch (received the bill) before I received it at 5 o’clock this evening…I didn’t know about it and really haven’t had a chance to look at it… I don’t see how this is gonna work”.
Chairman Page responded ““I think when you have a chance to study it further, you’ll see that some of your concerns are addressed”. Following this comment the $309 million budget was passed without any further discussion.
Page and the other supports of the amendments repeatedly claimed that the amended budget numbers were not a budget decrease and should not require a decrease in services due to the fact that the allocations were the same as the prior year + 5% for reserves.
This shows a complete lack of understanding of the government budgeting process.
It fails to account for the effect of increasing pension and benefit costs.
It fails to account for the fact that in order to plan for and procure materials and equipment necessary to implement projects starting in the next fiscal year department heads must make financial commitments before the budget is officially approved.
It ignores the fact that without a defined allocation of funds well in advance of budget approval County employees and equipment will sit idle while these items are being procured. Allocating employees and equipment well in advance of budget approval is the only way to ensure overlapping projects requiring certain equipment or expertise do not result in project delays.
Finally, the amendments do not make any adjustments to account for how a change in funding for one department may effect the needs of another.
In order to achieve the political victory of declaring they achieved a balanced budget Chairman Page and the supporters of his amendments:
- Have disrupted a long-standing and proven planning process shown to increase certainty, enhances the ability of department heads to plan ahead and allows department heads to allocate resources in an efficient manner
- Will require departments to hire from a significantly more limited pool of contractors due to the fact the best and most dependable contractors schedule projects well in advance
- Provides little time to adjust the type or quantity of materials in the event of a shortage.
After approving the amended budget its supports acknowledged the fact that it likely does not reflect the actual costs that will be appropriated throughout the year meaning that while on paper they have a balanced budget in reality the County will have a deficit in 2018 that will be funded by reserves.
Councilman Harder stated “I hope (the amended budget) will spur a dialogue between the 9th floor and the Council in the coming week and we can hash out any details out of that and see how we can work together on a balanced budget”.
Chairman Page responded to this by stating ” I hope that we can” acknowledging he served as the architect of an over $300 million budget without obtaining any feedback from the County’s department heads as to their actual needs or the amount of funds they have already committed to spending.
The meeting was concluded by an acknowledgement from Council Woman Gray that the current budget does not fund the pay raises expected in many departments and that those department heads will be forced to choose between providing their workforce with the pay increase they promised and funding needed capital projects. She also acknowledge that any pay raise will be contingent upon Council approval of offsetting budget cuts leaving employees and their families uncertain about the extent to which they can provide for their families. “I think a couple of other departments will work on getting raises but they have to present us with a budget because their, they know what their department can cut or can lose or cannot have or live without”.
The approved budget will almost surely create additional inefficiencies, increase costs and uncertainty, decrease employee moral and decrease response times that will be provided to citizens. However, County Executive Steve Stenger has not provided any of this information to citizens and did not even have the courage to attend the Council meeting in which his budget was officially cut.
Thankfully, Councilman Dolan (the Council’s sole no vote) stepped up and filled the void in leadership created by County exectutive Stenger and provided an eloquent and well reasoned opposition statement.
“I do believe…in times when need arises, you have to be able to spend money, contingent money if need be. If you don’t have that ability, then the citizens can suffer because of that simply by the fact that they have to wait another month or so to get additional funding and sometimes that’s costly and that’s burdensome to the residents. Not to mention the uncertainty for your employees not knowin’ and guaranteed if they’re gonna have a job all year, so I, and I don’t think anybody’s intending for that to happen but it’s a consequence of this and I do appreciate the fiscal responsibility. I understand that we all have a, have that responsibility and I, I believe some, everybody wants that, I agree, but I do see that, being genuine here, that there is some political reasons for some of these budgets and, and that’s the way it is. If you’re political with me, that’s fine but when it starts getting to affecting some of the constituents I represent, I don’t agree with it totally so, and really the fact that I was pretty much left out of this budget process anyway, so with that I vote no.”
Steve Stenger’s leadership has proven ineffective and has allowed political opportunists to replace a budgeting process that enhances certainty, includes those who run the government on a day to day basis and anticipates potential cost overruns with something thrown together at the last minute by a political opportunist with no government experience. It is time the citizens of the County demand a change at both the executive and council level and settle for nothing less than a true leader.