At age 43, Michele Whalen is looking for another job after almost three months of uncertainty.
Whalen was one of 20 St. Louis County Parks employees who received lay-off notices on Jan. 24. An additional six employees were laid off in other departments.
“They saved the parks, but they didn’t save our jobs,” she said. “At least now we know what was up, from Oct. 31 to Tuesday, we couldn’t do anything, we couldn’t plan anything. How would you like living your life like that?”
Whalen has worked in the parks maintenance department at Jefferson Barracks Park for the last year, and was a seasonal employee for three years before that.
The 26 layoffs come after a heated debate over the 2012 county budget. On Oct. 31, Dooley submitted a budget to the County Council that called for 173 layoffs and the closing of 23 St. Louis County Parks.
Six of the seven council members said they would not approve the budget, leading to the formation of a special budget committee headed by now-council chairman Mike O’Mara (D-Florissant).
After a rally and more than 60 speakers at council meetings, the county executive announced Dec. 6 that the parks would stay open.
“Charlie (Dooley) acted completely on his own in making those layoffs," council member Steve Stenger (D-Affton) said. "He did not consult with the council. In fact, we were all told that layoffs were not going to be necessary.”
Stenger said he and the other council members were shocked the executive would lay off employees only three weeks into the budgetary year.
“The county does not even have available what last year’s numbers were, so Charlie (Dooley) basically laid off 26 employees without even knowing what the financial landscape looked like for last year,” Stenger said.
Dooley informed the council about the layoffs on Jan. 23, and did not provide details why employees were eliminated from specific departments.
The next day, Parks Assistant Director Tom Ott told Whalen that after March 3, she would no longer have a job.
“I was shocked, I was upset, I was crying. What could you say? I know people who got their wives pregnant because they had a job and it was a safe job,” Whalen said. “I know people that went out there and bought houses. They haven’t even made a first payment on their house.”
Parks Director Lindsey Swanick said her department looked at the entire system, and chose positions throughout the parks department.
“This is very heartbreaking for people to lose their jobs,” she said. “It was very difficult to do and still keep the parks open.”
Swanick said her department has been reduced by 45 positions since 2008, a 17 percent drop. In addition to the 20 layoffs, she cut 12 full-time positions that were vacant. Some employees received their vacation time and half of their sick days or paid time off as severance.
“Tom Ott was as compassionate as a guy can be,” Whalen said. “Dooley needs to come out here and do his dirty work. My boss was as compassionate as she could be. What else can you do? She told us the truth.”
Swanick said her department must cut another $4 million this year. She said the revenue the county receives for the parks department is $18.5 million, and the department’s current budget is $22.5 million.
Capital projects in the parks system will also decrease. The department won’t be replacing playgrounds as frequently, such as in Bee Tree Park, and residents will notice more trash, uncut grass and less restroom maintenance in the parks as a result of the layoffs, Swanick said.
“I think if people would realize that we weren’t fat before, we’re anorexic now,” Swanick said. “I think people love their parks and everyone will continue to support us.”
But Stenger contends the county has the cash flow to pay the employees, especially with reserve funds.
“We don’t have a decline in revenue that anyone can speak of because we don’t know what we did last year,” Stenger said. “The employees that have been targeted by Charlie Dooley are a total of about $1.4 million, that’s it.”
The county hired approximately 300 people in 2011 and one-third of its existing staff within the last 18 months.
“They continued to hire them even though there was a claimed crisis,” Stenger said. “I’d think we’d put people and employees as a priority. They deserve it because they’re human beings. Our parks aren’t maintained automatically.”
For now, Whalen has a little more than a month to find a new job, and is still looking for answers.
“I don’t know where the Good Lord is going to put me yet,” she said. “It’s scary at age 43 thinking we might have to go do this again.”
Read more about the 2012 county budget discussions.