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County Budget Committee Discusses Alternatives to Closing Parks

A special committee met Tuesday to brainstorm the 2012 proposed budget.

Two potential alternatives to closing county parks came out of Tuesday’s special budget committee meeting: moving money from the health fund to the parks fund and not filling current vacant positions in the county.

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County Council Chairman Steve Stenger formed the committee, headed by District 4 Rep. Mike O’Mara, to suggest alternatives to the proposed 2012 budget. The budget called for the closure of . County Executive Charlie Dooley said the budget reflected a $26 million deficit in 2012. 

Chief Operating Officer Garry Earls presented the committee with a report that outlined answers to the their questions from the .

District 3 Rep. Colleen Wasinger suggested moving one or two cents from the health fund tax levy to the parks fund. The health fund currently has a reserve balance of 36 percent, well above the 10 percent reserve goal.

Department of Health Director Dr. Dolores Gunn said the move would cost her department $2.3 million per year for every cent taken away.

This is not the first time the council has suggested moving tax levy allocations.

In 2005, the health tax levy was 16 cents per $100 assessed value. The County Executive recommended that in 2007, 1.5 pennies be moved from the health fund to the parks fund. Three years later, one more penny was taken from the health fund to the general fund.

“At the time it was done, it was my understanding it was temporary,” Gunn said. “However, that cut has never been restored.”

Gunn said the money taken away from the health fund has caused its reserves to go in a downward trajectory, and will be depleted completely between 2016 and 2017.

“The short of it is this, you’ve already made significant reductions in the health department between 2002 and 2005,” Gunn said. “We’ve already said we’re willing to do what it takes to be a team player, but I’m asking that you not continue with further cuts as it would have a direct negative impact on the citizens of St. Louis County.”

Currently the health fund has an operating budget of $57.5 million with 506 employees. The 2012 proposed budget includes adding two employees at the executive administration level with an appropriation of $58.2 million.

Earls said he planned to spend down the health fund reserve to provide better healthcare to the citizens of St. Louis County.

“Instead of taking property tax revenues away form the health fund, our attention should be focused on how we can restore the levies that were transferred to the park maintenance fund and the general fund during the upcoming years to maintain our current public health services,” his report said.

Earls also answered questions on the funded, but unfilled positions in the budget. As of Nov. 23, there are 324 total vacant positions in the county; 94 are part time and 230 are full time. After subtracting held positions for police officers on military leave or in the academy, there are 301 vacant positions.

The 2012 budget calls for the elimination of 71 or 24 percent of these vacancies.

“To use a broad brush and eliminate all vacant positions is not the most appropriate way to manage our operations,” Earls said. “We should not manage our operations based on the random chance that a position becomes vacant.”

Dooley and Earls said the county has been in a hiring freeze since 2008 and reviews all positions as they become vacant.

The county hired 454 new employees (282 full time and 172 part time) between January and Oct. 31 of 2011. The largest new hires comes from the police department with 84 full time positions, 61 in the health department and 24 in the parks department.

The 2012 budget calls for the elimination of 173 positions (81 full time and 92 part time). The parks department makes up a majority of these layoffs with 133 positions. The layoffs also include 16 positions in the public works department and 10 in the police department.  

Stenger said not filling the 324 vacant positions would save the county $21 million. 

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