BELLEVILLE — Finances remain tight for St. Clair County, and they will continue that way through 2013, according to the recently approved county spending plan for next year.
"As you see, this is a pretty austere budget," Mark Kern, the County Board chairman, told the board last week before it voted on the spending plan.
Even so, the revenue picture continues to brighten, to the point of enabling county officials to predict a 1.11 percent increase in its general fund appropriation -- the main source of discretionary spending -- to $35.2 million.
The county overall 2013 budget will rise by $2.37 million, or about 1.3 percent, to more than $186 million.
Meanwhile, the money-losing MidAmerica St. Louis Airport, in Mascoutah, will see its budget increase to $5.53 million in 2013, an 18 percent increase over the current year.
County Board member Ed Cockrell, R-New Athens, criticized the budget boost for the airport even as the county has had to cut back on other things.
"If we don't have the money, then why are we trying to run the airport?" said Cockrell, who voted against the proposed 2013 budget. Cockrell is one of the few Republicans on the Democratic-controlled board.
"My point is, is there a blank check for MidAmerica Airport?" asked Cockrell, the former chairman of the board's finance panel.
The airport lost $8.4 million in 2011, or about $3.5 million less than its losses for 2010, county audits show.
Airport officials are anticipating revenue to grow further this year with Allegiant Air's return of passenger service after a hiatus of almost four years and the opening of the North Bay Produce warehouse, which aims to draw perishable air cargo from across North America.
The county last year subsidized the airport with $3.8 million in transfers and capital contributions. That was a decrease of about $600,000 from 2010.
Since the airport opened in 1998 at a cost of $313 million, the facility's total losses -- including depreciation and bond interest payments -- have surpassed $160 million.
In terms of winners and losers in the 2013 county budget, the County Board suffered the most, with cuts, respectively, of 25 percent for administration -- principally through the elimination of the election judge positions -- and 14 percent for general expenses.
Meanwhile, the county animal control budget saw the largest proposed increase in 2013 -- 7 percent over 2012, or an increase of more than $33,000, to $488,766, the budget plan shows.
Other increases in county expenditures include a 2.5-percent pay increase for county workers, for a boost of $475,293.
Balanced by the elimination of $288,100 in pay for part-time election judges, the general fund will see a net rise of $385,393, the report shows.
In a letter accompanying a draft copy of the budget, Kern draws attention to some potential financial windfalls and pitfalls in the year ahead:
* The county stands to save up to $1.5 million through the restructuring of its health insurance program.
* As the new federal health reform law, known as the Affordable Care Act, takes effect, the county medical plan will likely lose its "grandfather status" and "costs will increase significantly starting in 2014."
* Meanwhile, the state General Assembly ended an annual county appropriation of $364,000, while the backlog of unpaid bills owed by the state has climbed to about $2.8 million.
As a result, "we will continue to reduce costs wherever possible," Kern wrote in the letter. "In order to sustain our mission to our public, sacrifices will have to be managed in the most equitable manner possible."