As millions in federal pandemic aid roll into St. Louis County, officials split on who decides how to spend it

The St. Louis County Council met online April 7, 2020. The meeting was delayed for about 20 minutes as Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray, 4th District, was unable to connect. 

by Jeremy Kohler
published in St. Louis Post Dispatch
April 21, 2020

CLAYTON — A year ago next week, the resignation and indictment of St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger in a federal pay-to-play sting proved that his rivals on the County Council had been wise to check his ability to direct tax dollars.

Now the figure most responsible for building up the council’s power is asking the same body to give up some of it.
Sam Page was the council chairman who led the bipartisan coalition in a long war against Stenger’s agenda. Today, he’s the county executive in a quick-moving fight of a different kind: the county’s response to a pandemic.
In comments on Monday to reporters, Page said decisions needed to be made at a greater speed than the council’s “leisurely” pace of legislative deliberation would allow.

“Those decisions should be made by our emergency personnel staff, my department directors and everyone else that works for county government, including whoever we have as our partners in the community that are telling us what we need,” he said.

The Page administration wants the council to pass a bill that would accept $173.5 million in federal aid under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act and allow it to spend the funds without a requirement to come back to the council. The expenditures would be tracked and posted online, and subject to a federal audit at year’s end to ensure that funds were used only for expenses related to COVID-19.

The U.S. Treasury has yet to establish exactly what types of expenses the CARES Act will cover, even though the grants are expected to be made this week.

In the county’s bill, CARES Act funds would be considered “appropriated” as soon as they are received, allowing the executive’s office to spend them right away. Page last week appointed retired Centene Corp. executive Cindy Brinkley to lead the response, called “St. Louis County Cares.”
Page had asked the council to suspend the provision of a county charter amendment that required council authority for any monetary transfer within a county department, but the request didn’t have enough support on the council, and Chairwoman Lisa Clancy, D-5th District, dropped it from the council’s agenda.

Council members signaled late last week they were likely to vote unanimously to fast-track a version of a bill that would give the health department some $8 million to spend. But it wasn’t clear on Monday whether the bill detouring their budgetary authority had four votes.

The three Republicans on the council have said they don’t think it’s necessary. “It’s not to say we don’t realize the exigency of the current coronavirus crisis,” said Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-6th District. “But, at the same time, we’ve sworn due diligence responsibilities … I don’t think any of us are prepared to simply sign off on $173.5 million without substantial information about where it’s going to be used.”
Councilwoman Rita Heard Days, D-1st District, said Monday she hadn’t made up her mind about it.
“I’m a little torn about this,” she said. “We do have a fiduciary responsibility, but we also have a responsibility so that we provide services to the much needed populations, and we need to do that as quickly as we possibly can.” She said she was hopeful for a compromise that would balance “flexibility versus accountability.”

The council’s Justice, Health and Welfare committee, whose chairwoman is Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray, D-4th District, will discuss the bills in a video conference with Page’s staff at 1 p.m. on Tuesday; the items will go to a vote at the council’s regular meeting at 6:30 p.m.

It wasn’t clear if the Page administration had mapped out a plan for spending the $173.5 million. He said on Monday that it would be used largely for “a massive testing infrastructure and massive contact tracing.”
The Post-Dispatch asked on March 30, and then again on Thursday, for a copy of any plans. Page’s office said Monday it could not respond to the request until May 8.

Across the state
State and local governments across the country are splitting $150 billion in federal aid under the CARES Act, with each state guaranteed at least $1.25 billion. Local governments with populations of 500,000 are also eligible for a portion of the aid to be paid directly to them.

In state governments, governors are often able to exercise emergency powers to spend funds without the need for the legislature to meet, according to Jared Walczak, director of state tax policy for the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan Washington-based think tank that collects data and publishes research on U.S. tax policies.
“With local governments being much smaller and, by definition, very local, it’s generally much easier to continue to meet, and therefore these deliberative processes are less likely to be suspended,” he said. “In most communities, we’d expect the normal process of appropriating the funds would be followed.”

Jackson County is the only other local government in Missouri that will receive CARES Act funds directly from the U.S. government: about $122.7 million.
On Monday, the Jackson County Legislature voted 9-0 on a resolution asking the administration of County Executive Frank White Jr., a Democrat, to submit to the Legislature its proposed plan for the use of federal funds and expenditures for approval.

“I think the term ‘request’ in a government setting means you will do,” Dan T. Tarwater III, a Democrat who represents Jackson County’s 4th District, said in the hearing.

In an email to a reporter later, he said, “It is not to say that we don’t trust them, but we don’t trust them.”
The body’s chairwoman, Theresa Galvin, a Republican, said the body would be able to meet quickly to review the administration’s plans for spending the CARES Act funds.
“If something comes up and we need an emergency meeting, just pick up the phone and we’ll make it happen.” As for allowing the executive branch to spend without legislative backing, she said, “I think that’s dangerous, no matter who it is, to give anyone in that situation that amount of money and give them free range with it.”
Caleb Clifford, White’s chief of staff, said on Monday, “While we’re going to be working with members of the Legislature to ensure that we can use (the CARES Act funds) appropriately, we have not even gotten to the point where we are proposing anything but the normal procurement process.”

He said the proposal in St. Louis County “has some merit, because responding to a public health emergency is not best suited for the normal procurement process.”
But he said, “Just because federal funding is coming to Jackson County doesn’t get rid of the state budgetary laws, county ordinances or code provisions.”

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