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Shifting tax money from city parks is 'really bad news,' park official says

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 11, 2010 - If money that now helps maintain St. Louis' largest parks is diverted to help shore up weak spots in the city's budget, park officials are worried about the long-term consequences.

"This is not good news for us," said John Karel, director of Tower Grove Park, one of the facilities whose budgets would be affected by the proposed reallocation of funds for the city's next fiscal year.

"I know the city is in terrible shape," he said. "I am not second-guessing how we should prioritize these things. I'm just saying this is really bad news."

The budget proposition, known as Board Bill 1, was not discussed at Friday's aldermanic meeting because it was the bill's second reading, Board of Alderman clerk David Sweeney said. The bill will be open for discussion at next Friday's meeting at 10 a.m. The meeting is open to the public.

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The money in question comes from a half-cent sales tax for capital improvements approved by city voters in August 1993. Part of the proceeds from the tax has gone to help keep Tower Grove, Forest, Carondelet, Fairground, O'Fallon and Wilmore parks in shape.

City budget director Paul Payne said the tax brings in about $16.3 million a year and is allocated by ordinance this way: 20 percent citywide, 50 percent for ward projects, 17 for major parks, 10 percent for the police and 3 percent for recreation centers.

Because of pressures on the city's budget, Payne said, proposed reallocations for the city's upcoming fiscal year would cut money to the parks to $1.5 million from $2.4 million. Allocations to recreation centers and wards would also be cut, with the money shifted to the citywide category to help pay down the city's debt. In all, $3.9 million would be reallocated, he said.

Money would not be taken from the police category because it is already dedicated to debt service, Payne said. For the same reason, money would not be cut from the Forest Park allocation, he said, though it would see other financial changes, such as increased utility costs.

Payne said he hopes the reallocations would last only one year.

"We want it to be that," he said, "but next year presents other challenges. You would hope it would be a one-time deal."

Payne said he understood the needs of the parks and the effect the lack of funds might have, but budget officials have not been able to find any alternative.

"We've been looking at any place we can find to address budget gaps this year and next," he said. "It's always a challenge."

At Tower Grove Park, Karel said his operation would also be challenged by the reallocations. During this past fiscal year, he said, $300,000 was dedicated to the park, down from more than $400,000 the year before.

The money has been "a really critical source of much, much needed capital maintenance and repairs for all of these parks, certainly for Tower Grove," he added. "To my knowledge, there have never been any diversions of it before for any other purpose."

While private funds have been raised for what Karel called some of the "more artistic structures" in the park, he has relied on the tax revenue for more basic needs: streets, plumbing, roads, bathrooms and other amenities that the public expects to be in good shape.

"It's been demonstrated repeatedly and powerfully that the condition of public parks is a reflection and a catalyst for the civic health of the entire community," Karel said. "Urban communities with poorly maintained parks are in civic trouble big time. Urban communities with well maintained parks are on the road to vigor and health, economic as well as social health, and those parks have got to be maintained to stay on an upward trail. We have got to find an alternative way to fund these needs."

In the case of Tower Grove Park, he said, time takes its toll.

"This is a 138-year-old park," Karel said, "and a lot of the plumbing is almost that old. Things happen. People run into light poles. Storms come along and knock down trees. Plumbing goes bad and cracks and has to be dug up and repaired. Asphalt on paths wears out and crumbles, creating hazards for children and elderly people who use the parks.

"When those things happen, if we don't have a source of funds to fix them, we might have to close a restroom or cordon off a section of path or trail. Trees that fall down might not get picked up. This is a path that can only lead downhill, in a big hurry.

"We don't want this facility to do that, and we don't want the city to do that. I know there are other issues. But if the parks go downhill, St. Louis is going to downhill, and we don't want that to happen."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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