(The Center Square) – With about $24 million in unspent federal COVID-19 funds in hand, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page informed the County Council of plans to spend $193 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).
“I hope the Council will identify similar priorities in an ordinance appropriating the ARPA funds,” Page wrote in a letter to the council last week. “In that spirit, I have shared with this Council before my view that the County’s priorities for ARPA funds should be to continue addressing the public health, humanitarian, and economic crises resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
St. Louis County received $173.5 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. According to the county's annual CARES Act report, published May 27, it spent $133 million and is in the process of distributing $16 million.
“That pot of money needs to be spent by the end of the year, but he’s already moving into the next pot of money and how he wants to spend it,” said Councilman Tim Fitch, a Republican and former chief of the St. Louis County Police Department. “With $22 million sitting in the bank that has to be spent by the end of the year, we haven’t seen anything on how he plans to use that. I think we ran out of ways to spend it. Yes, there are needs. But the problem is everybody's trying to extend (the pandemic).”
The council passed an ordinance last April on a 4-3 vote along party lines to give Page, a Democrat, control of distributing the CARES funding. The ordinance stipulates funds should “address public health, humanitarian, and economic consequences of COVID-19, with special emphasis on addressing the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable and underserved populations, particularly the African-American community and people with chronic medical problems.”
Giving Page the power to spend the funds while running for re-election was a mistake, Fitch said.
“That money was given to him as a gift by the four Democrats on the council in April 2020, who handed it to him with no strings attached,” Fitch said. “You never just hand one person $173 million, especially during an election year, and say ‘go spend it however you want.’ He spent it exactly like we thought he would – politically – and in certain areas to get enough votes to win the election.”
Future spending plans will be approved by the council and then sent to Page.
“We will let him know how we plan to spend it as a group, and then he'll have a choice to either support it or veto it,” Fitch said.
Page’s largest proposed ARPA expenditure is $36 million for a new health center in North County, where approximately 46% of the population is Black and 8% are below the poverty line, according to data from the St. Louis Health Partnership for a Healthy Community. Fitch said two health centers – less than 20 years old – already serve the area and questioned if the new project will replace one or both.
The second-largest expenditure is $22 million for expanding workforce development programs at the Metropolitan Education and Training Center in Wellston, located on the northern boundary of the City of St. Louis.
Page suggests spending $1.5 million annually for a $2 per hour pay increase for staff at the justice center. Fitch questioned the county’s ability to fund the amount after APRA money runs out.
“We absolutely agree they're underpaid,” Fitch said. “They need to be paid more, but how are we going to continue to fund this? They answer that question by saying they’ll look at it in three years. But what happens then? Do they take a pay cut? No one from the administration has been able to answer that.”
Page proposes setting aside “a significant amount of funds” due to a projected loss of tax revenue. Last week, Gov. Mike Parson vetoed legislation giving property tax relief to businesses affected by government health restrictions due to the pandemic. Page also suggests using APRA funds to “offset the cost of forgiving restaurants and bars from paying fees to the County for the next three years, which would be a small but important way of communicating our support for that industry as it rebounds from the pandemic.”
“When I brought this up to him last year, (Page) was absolutely against giving any kind of rebates or anything like that, so now he's obviously flipped,” Fitch said. “St. Louis County really suffered the most because of the number of shutdowns, lockdowns and closures. My guess is he probably talked to the governor and said, ‘Hey, if you veto this, we will do something locally.’ Sam then gets credit for it. I get the politics. But this is something I'm absolutely in favor of.”
Fellow Republican councilman Mark Harder declined to comment until he reviews more details from Page's proposal and an August update on the efficacy of the county's programs funded by the CARES Act.