For the past month, the St. Charles County Council has reviewed the 2017 budget as proposed by County Executive Steve Ehlmann. This is a huge annual project, and Mr. Ehlmann and his staff did a great job. County Government is committed to a balanced budget and healthy reserves, but with the growth of our community and changing demands, this is becoming a challenge. One area the County Council discussed extensively during the budget review process is the needs of law enforcement and how we can continue to provide quality resources for police and prosecutors.
St. Charles County voters approved a 35 cent property tax back in the 70s. These taxes went to the County General Fund, the primary operating fund of County Government, and have been rolled back to zero due to both voluntary reductions and the Hancock Amendment. Sales tax provides 63 percent of County General Fund revenue, with the rest from various grants, fees and licenses. However, the current level of revenue is not keeping up with increases in public safety costs. For example, the growing drug epidemic is estimated to cost County Government at least $1 million annually. County Police Chief David Todd requested five additional officers for 2017 to battle this problem. Even after cutting County-wide employee pay raises to one percent, budgeted Council expenses and reimbursements by nearly half, as well as other cuts, the budget would only accommodate two new officers.
Similarly, the Prosecuting Attorney requested nine additional employees to help enter warrant information in a timely manner, handle the paperless requirements of the state courts and clear a huge backlog of cases due to increases in felony drug possession, felony stealing, and domestic violence. Many of these cases are due to the growing drug epidemic. We are working on ways to help our Prosecutor, including moving traffic and misdemeanors to the County court to free up existing staff, and assessing costs in felony cases to support two of the additional staff the Prosecutor requested, but there are no additional General Fund resources in the budget at this time.
The County Council is considering several ways to increase revenue for law enforcement. We realize that past budgets have cut away the “fat,” but this budget is slicing into the heart of what County Government and its law enforcement entities need to accomplish. Here are the solutions that have supported this budget:
- A new St. Charles County Law Enforcement Restitution Fund that would allow our judges to assess restitution, not to exceed $100, to law enforcement in criminal cases. These funds would be supervised by a citizen trustee board.
- A proposal within the 2017 budget to have St. Charles County withdraw from the annual back-to-school sales tax holiday, as some counties in the state and municipalities in our region have chosen to do.
The Council will be studying additional options for a more comprehensive answer to these public safety needs. Our County is blessed with having an excellent law enforcement team and your Council is determined to keep it that way with your support.