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POST DISPATCH: Unprecedented time calls for bold action from the County Council.

Unprecedented time calls for bold action from the County Council.

Lisa Clancy, April 30, 2020

Over the past few weeks, the St. Louis County Council has been grappling with issues of paramount importance. As everyone has been feeling the jarring effects of the global pandemic — from drastic shifts in employment and changes in child care to losing loved ones — we have been undertaking the task of determining how to best utilize nearly $173.5 million of federal money that the county has been granted from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. The council’s role is to uphold our commitment to county residents and ensure these funds are spent equitably, intentionally and transparently to stop the spread of the virus and repair the damage that has already been done. But the transformative question is: How?

To answer that question, an understanding of our process is required. One of the council’s biggest duties is to appropriate money; all appropriations bills go through our standard legislative process. This process is typically slow moving. First, a council member requests the preparation of a bill to be introduced at a subsequent meeting. One week after the introduction of the bill, the bill can be voted on for perfection. If a majority of council members vote in favor of perfection, the bill advances the following week to final passage. If a majority of council members vote in favor of final passage, the bill is passed and goes to the county executive for signing.

This process takes at least two weeks but can be slowed down if changes are made to the bill or if the sponsor decides to hold the bill. The only way to expedite this process, to not have a week pass between each step, requires a unanimous vote from the council. One can see how this slow process may not pose challenges during typical circumstances but presents many problems during a global pandemic in which every day counts in the quest to save lives.

Bill 104, approved by a 4-3 vote of the council on Tuesday, is the first and maybe only policy the council has considered related to the spending of CARES Act funds. Passage of Bill 104 will fully appropriate the county’s CARES Act money, which will allow the county executive to spend it without further permission from the council. This is the source of much consternation from a vocal minority of my colleagues, and from some members of the community, but it is fundamental to the county’s ability to continue to provide a robust response to this crisis. The health, humanitarian and economic crisis of this pandemic is unprecedented and requires county government to adapt swiftly as unforeseen challenges and opportunities arise. A strong focus on our most vulnerable populations is critical, and oversight, accountability and transparency are essential.

To this end, Bill 104 establishes a compliance workflow for CARES Act expenditures to ensure that five pages of federal regulations are stringently adhered to. It also mandates a transparency portal, so that the public can see, in real time, where this money is being spent, some of it before any checks have been written.

I value cooperation and the opportunity to work across party lines. Therefore I have brainstormed, listened to others, and evaluated many options that could be a compromise. Yet each compromise option has one thing in common: the potential for the addition of extra days and weeks in an environment when every day matters. By passing this bill, the County Council is not giving up oversight; we are adapting it for this crisis. I announced a bipartisan Special Committee on Oversight of COVID 19 Funding and Expenditures last week. This is one way that the council and County Executive Sam Page’s administration will remain accountable to the federal government and to county residents. The council retains a great deal of authority and power even after this bill is approved, and we will not be afraid to use it should we need to.

Unprecedented times require unprecedented action. While I’m disappointed that there is partisan divide, I’m proud that the majority of the council is willing to accept that tradition. Business-as-usual simply won’t serve county residents’ best interests during this crisis. Instead, we are making some temporary adaptations and moving boldly forward to save lives.

Lisa Clancy is a former teacher and social worker elected in 2018 to represent the 5th District. Earlier this year, the council unanimously elected her as chairwoman.

P.O. Box 410091
Saint Louis, MO 63141
Paid for by Page for Missouri, Sue Felling, Treasurer

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