Compromise Reached: All Parks to Stay Open
County Executive Charlie Dooley said all St. Louis County Parks will remain open.
Less than five minutes into Tuesday’s St. Louis County Council meeting, County Executive Charlie Dooley made the announcement that all 23 St. Louis County Parks slated for closure in 2012 will stay open.
“The things that we’ve compromised on is that we’re going to leave all of our parks systems open… we will keep the West County satellite office open as well, and we will keep the plowing in unincorporated St. Louis County,” he said.
The county executive emphasized a team effort in not only adjusting the 2012 budget, but also looking ahead for long-term solutions to what he originally predicted to be a $26 million budget deficit.
“There may be lingering issues in the future about how large a deficit was or wasn’t, or if it exists. Those don’t matter right now; the parks are back,” said County Council Chairman Steve Stenger (D-District 6) after the meeting. “I think what’s important is that a compromise was reached.”
Flat revenues and declining property values led Dooley and his department to draft a 2012 budget that closed 23 county parks, laid off 173 employees and eliminated snow plowing in unincorporated areas when less than 2 inches of snow accumulated.
“We've still got some hard decisions and its not over… it’s not just a park problem, it’s a budget problem. That’s what everybody is focusing on, and that’s what I’m elated about, that we are now all on the same page,” Dooley said.
Six out of the seven councilmembers said they would not pass Dooley’s original budget. A balanced budget must be approved before Jan. 1 to avoid month-to-month spending under the current budget.
Stenger organized a special budget committee headed by Councilman Mike O’Mara (D-District 4).
O’Mara said out of the original 173 proposed layoffs, only 40 remained in various departments. Neither the council nor Dooley would specify which departments would suffer layoffs, including the position of county preservation historian Esley Hamilton.
The committee had two meetings and submitted a list of cost-saving measures and efficiency improvements to the council at Tuesday’s meeting, totaling $10 million.
They re-estimated the sales and casino taxes, increasing the sales tax revenue to $750,000 or $1 million, which would add $2 million in revenue to the budget. The committee questioned an overly-conservative approach to revenue estimates at their first meeting.
The committee also recommended eliminating 60 positions that are unfilled, but funded, and redistributing those duties to current employees. This would put $4 million back into the budget.
“… We recommend proceeding with any new hires if only absolutely necessary,” the report said.
The 60 positions would be an addition to the 71 unfilled, funded positions that were slated for elimination in the 2012 proposed budget. As of Nov. 23, there are 301 vacant positions in the county.
To reduce expenditures in the Parks and Recreation Department, the committee recommended reviewing the department and adjusting the fee structure.
The council will also research national certification for the parks. The certification could bring in experts to improve procedures and services.
Dooley said he will use some of the suggestions in the amended budget, but might still have to dip into the county's reserves.
“We’ve got a long-term structural budget problem that needs to be addressed,” he said.
The compromise comes days after a heated debate between Dooley and Stenger, who now both say the clash is over.
“We’re beyond that now, we’re focused on the county’s business, the county’s budget, that’s what people expect of us and that’s what we’re doing,” Dooley said.
“It was a hot debate,” Stenger said. “And it was a hot debate because it was over such an important issue. I think that at the end of the day, as the expression goes, cooler heads prevailed, and we got together and we arrived at a compromise.”
Stenger said the council still needed to make tweaks before the new ordinances could be adopted and the amended budget is passed, but it could be accomplished before Jan. 1.
“I think we have a level of enthusiasm that we haven’t seen in a long time, we’ve had an enthusiastic fight, but now we’re going to have an enthusiastic coming together,” he said.