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Government, Politics & Issues

St. Louis County parks controversy could haunt Dooley

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 22, 2011 - A botched attempt at raising property taxes earlier this fall earned St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley an unprecedented amount of criticism. Then he presented the county's 2012 budget in early November. A proposal to close a number of parks and lay off employees touched an especially painful nerve.

Citing a worsening fiscal outlook, Dooley and members of his administration have defended the proposed cuts by saying that the county must live within its means. Failure to do that, they say, will lead to more fiscal problems in the future. But some point out that Dooley's plan is out of scale when compared to other counties with comparable parks systems. The county council's chairman has questioned whether the cuts are necessary. And the idea to partner with local and state entities has garnered a mixed reaction.

The opposition to Dooley's plan was clear during a standing-room-only budget hearing where detractors packed the St. Louis County Government Building in Clayton. With a majority of County Council members stating their opposition, Dooley may have to change course.

At least one political observer sees the fight over the parks as a sign of short-term political turmoil for the Democratic county executive.

"If you look at him as sincere, you look at him as the author of the cuts," said Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "And I think that offering a very unpopular policy prescription is going to cost you politically in the short and medium term."

For his part, Dooley said tough economic times sometimes call for difficult decisions. He said the plan is one of the most difficult choices he's made in his long career.

"I wish I didn't have to present that budget," Dooley said. "But I don't know what the alternative is. As I indicated at the last council meeting, the choices you have to make when you have less money they all are difficult and they're painful."

Budgetary Battle

With everything from a petting zoo at Suson Park to roving bison in Lone Elk Park, St. Louis County possesses one of the larger park systems in Missouri.

The fact that St. Louis County even has a parks system is somewhat unusual, as most are run through municipalities. Only a few suburban and urban counties -- Jackson County and St. Charles County for instance -- have them, according to Jan Neitzert, executive director of the Missouri Park & Recreation Association.

Under Dooley's proposal, the county parks department would receive $21.6 million in the 2012 budget, down from $26 million in 2011. In addition to closing parks, recreation centers and pools across the county, the plan would eliminate 133 employees.

Dooley and others have noted the money it costs to run the parks isn't keeping up with the system's funding stream. St. Louis County Budget Director Paul Kreidler said last week in a webcast that the county needs to make reductions to keep its "fund balance" from dipping too low. That reserve, Kriedler said, is needed in case of "another bump in the economy, to make needed repairs to our facilities or to respond to a natural disaster."

That prognosis was repeated by Garry Earls, St. Louis County's chief operating officer.

"If anything, we've been able to hold off the crisis associated with that for several years while we've made due with resources that we have," Earls said. "In some cases, we've had some special one-time funding, we've had some new revenue that's been in place. But our current forecast is there's no new revenue coming in."

Earls said the county is facing a structural deficit of $26 million in 2012 when costs are projected to be more than projected revenues.

"Now, you can try to wish that away," Earls said. "But if hope is your plan for closing that gap, then it's not done in the way (former county government head) Larry Roos set up in St. Louis County," Earls said. But few other departments saw the cuts the parks received. For instance, the County's Health Department, which received $57.5 million in the 2011 budget, is budgeted for $58.23 million in the 2012 proposal. And the Department of Highways and Traffic would receive $48.63 million in 2012, compared to $48.75 million in the 2011 budget.

Dooley's take on the budget has been questioned by St. Louis County Council Chairman Steve Stenger, D-Affton. Stenger said earlier that the county had hired hundreds of employees over the past few months -- something he said "was not indicative of a budget crisis." He also said revenue projections he saw don't show a decline nearly as steep as Dooley describes.

Stenger raised those concerns again on Monday at the council's first meeting of a special budget committee created after Dooley proposed his spending plan. In addition to raising questions about the revenue projections, Stenger said other budgetary items could be examined.

"I have about 30 items that I've identified that could be looked into, at a minimum, on the expenditure side for savings," Stenger said. "We're talking about things like ... energy savings, parkings savings, some fees that may or may not be collected on adjusted services. I have a whole lot of issues I'd like to raise there."

Dooley has a structural advantage in the budget battle. The council can only approve or disapprove the budget -- it cannot make line item changes as Congress or state government can. The council can, however, prompt Dooley to make changes.

"I'm always willing to work with them, but I haven't heard anything other than 'I don't like this,'" Dooley said. "Well, tell me what you do. We only have so money to spend."

'Unprecedented'

Rich Dolesh, vice president for conservation and parks for the National Recreation and Park Association, said other governmental entities across the country have made cuts to parks.

"What's happening is, as general fund revenues are drying up, there's internal competition for those revenues for public service agencies," Dolesh said. "This is a long-term trend that won't reverse overnight. We haven't even seen the depth of it yet."

"Virtually every agency in the country is looking for new sources of revenue and new partnership potential and more ways of doing more with less," he added.

But no proposal, he said, equals what Dooley put forward. Most plans, Dolesh said, are "double digit" cuts occurring in successive years -- not all at once. "This type of [one-time cut] without warning and without really a full examination of alternative is pretty unprecedented," Dolesh said.

Dooley suggested several options to prevent park closures, including turning over the facilities to local and state entities or having a nonprofit group run certain parks. Some local leaders -- such as Fenton Mayor Dennis Hancock -- have had a lukewarm reaction to municipal partnerships. And while Gov. Jay Nixon issued a statement supporting state-county partnerships, the Democratic governor hasn't provided any details.

Dolesh said an effort in California to turn state parks over to counties hasn't been well received. He said the state legislature there has approved a plan to close 70 of California's 270 parks.

"And maybe in times gone by, there might have been a lot of interest in (counties assuming control of the state parks)," Dolesh said. "There's very minimal interest in assuming the costs and liabilities and operating expenses."

From a statewide perspective, Neitzert said the proposal was jarring because no other county to her knowledge has embarked on a similar plan that involves such sweeping cuts to parks.

"Regardless of the financial challenges that exist not only in Missouri but around the country, to my knowledge this scale of closure has not been proposed in Missouri," Neitzert said. "St. Louis County is an active member of MPRA. And so, their assets and what they bring to the citizens of St. Louis County and those visitors outside the country are very valuable. So yes, it's distressing to think that these levels of resources could no longer be available."

St. Charles County, according to spokesman John Sonderegger, has no plans to emulate St. Louis County's directions on parks. He said a use tax brings in $5.5 million a year.

"No way in hell are we closing any parks," Sonderegger said.

Even though the cuts may be unpopular, Earls said, "I believe that (Dooley) has certainly stepped up and tried to do the courageous thing for the sake of the people in the county. Now, could we have taken something else out of the budget? We could have closed a police precinct, I guess. We could have reduced our investment in children through the family courts and/or our reform school out in West County. There are other alternatives certainly we can do."

"But as we compared parks versus those other alternatives, we always came down on the side of providing public safety, public health, public infrastructure at a much higher priority than providing those same parks," he added.

Vanishing Fortunes?

Dooley has sepnt a long time working his way up to a powerful position. From the late 1970s through the mid-1990s, Dooley was both a city councilman and a mayor in Northwoods.

In 1994, he became the first African-American elected to the St. Louis County Council. Since being appointed as county executive after the death of Buzz Westfall in 2003, Dooley has won election to the office in 2004, 2006 and 2010.

Throughout his career, Dooley's gone through tough political fights. He lost to William Lacy Clay decisively in a Democratic primary for Congress. In 2004, he beat back Republican Gene McNary in a competitive race for county executive. And in a terrible year for Democratic candidates, Dooley defeated a well-funded challenger in Republican Bill Corrigan.

But in recent months, Dooley has run into political trouble. He was criticized in March when he hired Mike Temporiti -- son of his campaign manager, John Temporiti -- to a county position. And in September, Dooley had to retreat when the Democratically tilted County Council revolted against a plan to raise property taxes.

A similar revolt seems to be occurring with Dooley's parks plan. At least five council members -- including four Democrats -- announced last week they would not support any park closures. That signals that Dooley's budget will not be able to pass without significant changes.

Robertson said many political leaders are caught flat-footed dealing with tough budgetary situations, regardless of political party or governmental experience.

"These problems are so serious in different places that it's really hard to find to find a way out that is politically skillful and also solves the problem," Robertson said. "This is one effort to do that, but it sure did backfire. ... If you're going to cut something, at least if it's concentrated in sort of one area that geographically is limited, then you might have a better chance at getting away with it. These cuts are going to threaten parks that are popular across the county. They mobilized a pile of people in all different parts of the county."

And Robertson said the fact that the proposal was made so close to Dooley's request for a property tax increase further hurts his political position.

"These two things coming so close together reinforce each other and make observers think that Dooley is politically wounded and will have a hard time recovering," Robertson said. "To recover from it, he's going to have to appear to be much more politically savvy about the kind of impact his proposals will make than he has been so far."

Council member Mike O'Mara, chairman of the special budget committee, wouldn't say if Dooley is at a less advantageous political position going forward. But the Florissant Democrat did say some of the advice Dooley's received "has not been the best of interest for him."

Stenger said it's up to the public to decide whether Dooley has been weakened from a political standpoint. But when asked about whether the controversy accounts for a sea change between Dooley and the council, he said, "I can only say with respect to the proposal to close approximately 50 percent of the parks, I just think that it is such an ill-conceived proposal that for me personally it is very hard to take that proposal seriously.

"It strikes at the very core at what we are as a county," Stenger said. "It calls into question for me what the possible goal and objective of this proposal could possibly be. It is so ill-conceived that it effects the very fabric of our community. It is concerning. ... This is perhaps the most ill-conceived proposal I have ever heard of, read about or even thought about."

Dooley said he does not feel he's been politically weakened by the dual controversies. Nor does he feel he'll be less effective.

"They have a right to believe what they believe and I have a right to believe what I believe," said Dooley, when asked if he was at a weaker position with the council. "In the business we're in, we are not always going to agree 100 percent. Does that mean I don't like working with these individuals? That's not true. This is just one issue we don't necessarily agree on."

"Does it mean a loss in leadership or vision? No," Dooley added. "They just don't agree with me on this issue. I look at that as 'that's what it is.' And we can work it out and move forward, make some compromises or whatever. But I know because someone doesn't agree with 100 percent of the time doesn't mean we can't work together, we can't be friends and we can't move this county forward in a very positive way."

Jason Rosenbaum, a freelance journalist in St. Louis, covers state and local government and politics.

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