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Parks bond issue sent to Mayor Slay

(via Flickr/pasa47)
The Kingshighway entrance to Tower Grove Park in St. Louis.

After 18 months of work behind the scenes, a three-week delay, and two hours of debate that covered topics from roller skating to Robert Frost, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen has sent a $64 million bond issue for the city's parks to Mayor Francis Slay.

The city will sell the bonds and use sales tax revenue that voters set aside in 1995 and again in 2000 to pay them back. $30 million will go to Forest Park, and the 106 others will split the remaining $34 million.

The Forest Park bonds will be purchased by the non-profit Forest Park Forever, which will raise private funds for that purpose. The agency will also  direct the sales tax revenue into the park, essentially doubling the pool of money. In addition, the agency is looking to raise $100 million to create a permanent trust for Forest Park, eliminating the need for city money.

Forest Park Forever has already secured at least $25 million for the bond purchase, and there was concern in November that delays could put that donation at risk.

Despite the lengthy debate, the bond measure sailed through the Board of Aldermen 24-4.

"This city is one big retail store," said Ald. Joe Vollmer, who asked to be added as a co-sponsor. "If you want people to come to your store, you re-invest in your inventory. The most inventory that people see every day are our public parks."

Ald. Scott Ogilvie, whose 24th Ward borders Forest Park, was one of the measure's chief cheerleaders.

"A park in good shape is a community asset and a park in bad shape is a community liability," Ogilvie said, echoing statements made by board president Lewis Reed on yesterday's St. Louis on the Air. "If we pass this, we can take a certain number of our parks that may be liabilities currently and turn them into assets."

Not all of the support, however, was as enthusiastic. Several northside aldermen said they were voting for the measures because they'd been assured their parks would get some attention. And Ald. Marlene Davis said outright that her vote was probably a bad one.

"I admit that to my constituency right now. I'm willing to take the risk just in case it works," she said. "It's not likely. This is a special interest initiative and a majority of the money is not going to be used in any parks around the city."

Ald. Antonio French led the opposition. He was a co-sponsor of the measure, but says information from Comptroller Darlene Green led him to change his mind.

He says large parks like O'Fallon (in his ward), Tower Grove, and Carondelet will receive less money through the bond issue than they currently receive in yearly allocations. And he's especially concerned that the city will lose flexibility to balance its budget, as it has the past several years, with money from special funds.

"Parks money should go to parks - in great circumstances," French said. "But the reality is that the money wasn't there. And so if we don't tap into that fund, where else do we tap into? I feel the same way about public safety money, affordable housing money, all these different pots that we tap into when we're broke." He called a bond issue for parks a "luxury" in tough economic times.

And Ald. Tom Villa blasted the city for taking on additional debt, saying the city already has $962 million in outstanding bonds. 

"We're going to take the city's chief fiscal officer (Green) and the young man that sees the money coming and going on a daily basis [budget director Paul Payne, who also opposes the measure] and take their opinion because Room 200 and the parks director wants to move forward with an ill-conceived proposal," Villa said, referring to the mayor's office in City Hall.

Green has indicated a willingness to delay the bond issue, or to issue them in smaller chunks. A spokeswoman said today the comptroller was out of town and had no comment. The director of Forest Park Forever also declined to comment on Green's threat.

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

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