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Stalled bill on bonds for parks could jeopardize $25 million for Forest Park

(via Flickr/ChrisYunker)
Another delay on a bond issue for the city's parks could put a $25 million donation to Forest Park, pictured here, in jeopardy.

A $25 million donation to Forest Park may be in jeopardy if the St. Louis Board of Aldermen cannot approve a bond issue for parks improvement by the end of the year.

The two bond issues - one for Forest Park, another for the city's 100+ other parks - stalled again Thursday at the Board of Aldermen.

The bills would work in the following way:

  • The city would sell $64 million in bonds - $30 million for Forest Park, $34 million for the others.
  • Forest Park Forever will raise $30 million in private donations to purchase the bonds for Forest Park. The others would be sold on the open bond market, and divvied up among the so-called "regional" parks by acreage.
  • The bonds would be paid off using revenue from a dedicated sales tax that voters approved in the 1990s. That's what currently funds park maintenance and capital needs in the city.
  • Instead of using the sales tax revenue to pay off the bonds, Forest Park Forever would instead take the revenue and pour it back into the park. In addition, Forest Park Forever will be raising $100 million to endow a trust that would provide for the upkeep of the park in perpetuity, freeing up city taxes for other use.

That's where the $25 million from an unidentified donor or donors comes in. Sponsors Lyda Krewson, whose ward contains most of Forest Park, and board president Lewis Reed, say the donors want to make sure that their funds supplement, not replace, the commitment the city should be making to its parks. Donations made before the end of the year can be counted on this year's tax form, though neither Krewson nor Reed were sure if the money would go elsewhere if the city couldn't get its act together in time.

In a rare appearance before the full Board of Aldermen, Darlene Green expressed concerns about losing some flexibility if the park maintenance money is committed to paying off bonds.

"This bond issue is one that is for non-essential items for the city of St. Louis," Green said. "We have a minimum of $7 million annually to spend for park maintenance, upkeep and capital needs, and what we are being asked to to with this bond issue is to take those dollars and tie them up into a bond issue, making less money available for maintenance in our current budget, requiring that the city of St. Louis [to] look elsewhere for additional dollars."

"All flexibility means is that we need to able if we need to to use the parks money for something else," said Ald. Krewson. "And I think all you have to do is look at what's going on in the county right now and understand how important parks are to constituents. I know we have a  difficult budget situation, but we ought to listen to what the voters voted on originally."

Aldermen were also concerned about language in the measure that would turn control of Forest Park over to Forest Park Forever if the city defaulted on the bonds. Krewson called it a red herring, noting that the same complaint wasn't raised on past bond issues for Forest Park.

Ald. Fred Wessels called the deal a "shaft job" for regional parks.  Carondelet Park, which is mostly located in Wessels' south side ward, will get less money from the bonds than it does from the current distribution of the parks tax.

"If I voted for this bill, I would be embarrassed to tell mychildren and grandchildren about it,," Wessels said. "This is going to have a negative impact on the ability to make capital improvements. If you've got Fairgrounds, if you've got O'Fallon Park, Willmore Park, or Tower Grove, you vote [for] this bill, you vote against your constituents."

Wessels also questioned why Green, the comptroller, or budget director Paul Payne were not at any of the hearings on the legislation. That was a concern shared later on Twitter by Ald. Antonio French.

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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