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A closer look at budget numbers behind the county parks controversy

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 1, 2011 - The St. Louis County 2012 budget proposal, which includes the closure of many parks, has become a magnet for controversy. At the most recent budget hearing, a testy exchange between County Executive Charles Dooley and Council Chair Steve Stenger focused on revenue estimates and hiring decisions, as well as a challenge from Dooley to show him some options.

So what is the county's budget situation?

The money that funds St. Louis County's departments and programs comes from a myriad of sources that include, but are not limited to, sales taxes, property taxes, casino revenue, fees and licenses.

Most of county's revenue comes from sales taxes, which amounted to roughly $244 million in 2010, according to the St. Louis County's budget book.  The majority of the sales tax revenue was directed toward "special revenue funds" that must be used for a particular purpose, such as children's services or transportation. About $44.8 million in 2010 went toward the "general" fund, the pot of money used to pay for numerous county services.

Sales tax revenue is expected to be $288 million in 2011, mainly because a one-tenth cent emergency communications tax and a half-cent mass transit sales tax went into effect. Dooley's office projected that sales tax revenue would about the same in 2012 as in 2011.

The other big source of revenue for the county is the property tax, which has been steadily declining since 2008. The budget summary shows that 2011 property tax revenues are estimated to be $110,530,000 -- about $5.2 million less than collected in 2010. In 2012, Dooley's office projected that property tax revenues would be about the same as 2011's figures.

Almost all of the county property tax goes into the general fund, which is subdivided into funds dedicated to the health department, road and bridges, park maintenance and debt service. Within the overall general fund is another general fund that provides money for such county services as administration, police, corrections, planning and public works.

Other revenue streams into the overall general fund include casino taxes [estimated to be roughly $10 million in 2011], licenses and permits [estimated $11.36 million in 2011] and charges for government services [estimated $42.17 million in 2011].

One source of contention between members of the County Council ouncil and Dooley's administration is the projection that key sources of revenue -- sales tax and property taxes -- are expected to be flat in 2012. In response to a question from Stenger about justifying the projected revenue numbers for 2012, Garry Earls, the county's chief operating officer, wrote that the county "considers current and forecasted economic conditions, historical patterns and cycles, and other relevant information when preparing revenue estimates."

"The two largest sources of revenue are property tax and sales tax," Earls wrote. "Property tax revenues are estimated by utilizing the latest assessed value information from the Assessor's Office, current tax levies, and historical collection rates. Sales tax revenue estimates are based on an analysis of revenue trends and surveillance of overall economic conditions. We are constantly monitoring actual revenues and adjusting estimates based on the most up-to-date information."

In response to a question from Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Town and Country, about eliminating vacant -- but unfilled -- positions, Earls wrote "to use a broad brush and eliminate all vacant positions is not the most appropriate way to manage our operations."

"We need to be making proactive decisions about what programs and services we intend to provide in the budget year, and what service levels," Earls wrote. "We should not manage our operations based on the random chance that a position becomes vacant."

Earls said there are currently 301 vacancies, 94 of which are part-time positions. He added that 71 of the 301 positions are "scheduled to be eliminated in the 2012 recommended budget."

Beyond the County Government Center

Through the Public Insignt Network, the Beacon asked readers about Dooley's plan. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the respondents did not like it and presented alternatives varying from setting up user fees, increasing the tax used to fund the parks or cutting other areas of county government.

In addition, Gov. Jay Nixon's overtures to get the state involved in the controversy received mixed reviews, some wanting details before commenting. Others do not want the state involved in a county-run entity.

Following is small sample of the responses the Beacon received. Questions and responses have been edited for clarity and length.

Julie Cruise
54, University City, works at a library

What has been your interaction with St. Louis County parks? I love the McDonnell County Park in the St. Ann area. It's beautiful, quiet, simple and well worth saving. It is important to have access to nature. The nine feet of land on the side of my house is not enough.

Some opponents to Dooley's proposal question whether it is just an excuse to raise taxes. Do you agree or disagree? I suspect it is an excuse. If we need to raise taxes, tell us why. I'm not opposed to paying for the things we need to make St. Louis a decent, safe, beautiful, effective place to live.

Gov. Jay Nixon says he is working with Dooley's office "on the potential for joint state-county management of some county parks otherwise slated to close." Is that a proposal you could support? Yes and no. I appreciate that the governor knows the value of a park. On the other hand, why should money from the people of Sikeston, for example, have to support our parks? People in St. Louis should pay for their own amenities. We should man up and start paying for the privilege of being Americans. (That sounds more jingoistic than I intended it to.)

Melanie Martin
20, south St. Louis County, student at Truman State University

Do you believe St. Louis County needs to tighten its budget? Even though the economic times may be tough, "tightening" the county budget can only be accomplished if we look at the big picture. Not spending any more money than already set aside is one step, analyzing the important community items that the budget covers is another.

Why are county-run parks are important to you? As an avid outdoorswoman, living in the suburbs makes being in the real outdoors difficult. I have found solace in being able to go to a county park. Friends and I would have picnics, go hiking, play sports or just go for a pleasant walk around the parks. My dad used to take me and my siblings to parks such as Suson or Lone Elk when he was off in the summers. It was because of parks like these that I was able to bond with my dad and his love of the outdoors. While my family is fortunate enough to afford traveling, I know several families who cannot. This doesn't make them crave the outdoors less. By keeping these parks, those people are allowed to exercise their passion for the outdoors in just a short drive.

The first time I saw elk and bison at Lone Elk was so incredible and amazing. I sincerely hope I will be able to share that experience with my children someday. While the economy may be suffering, keeping these precious parks are a necessity. With financial stresses, people are in dire need of an outlet or just some time of freedom.

Gov. Jay Nixon says he is working with Dooley's office "on the potential for joint state-county management of some county parks otherwise slated to close." Is that a proposal you could support? I could support that proposal only as a last resort. I'd rather at least some of the parks be saved than all of them shut down. Having pride in our county parks is something to certainly consider in this proposal, however. By claiming them as state parks, they no longer belong to the county and thus "bragging rights" have been turned over.

Richard Orr
61, St. Charles, retail buyer at Alpine Shop Ltd.

What has been your interaction with St. Louis County parks? What is your favorite? Probably Cliff Cave. The cliffs, caves, sinkholes and springs make this a fascinating area to explore. Its frontage on the mighty Mississippi River is a bonus! It is important to have a government agency charged with ensuring the park system exists and is run for the good of all the residents in the county.

Some opponents to Dooley's proposal question whether it is just an excuse to raise taxes. Do you agree or disagree? I don't disagree. But if it is, it was handled most clumsily. Whether funding increases are needed or not, the parks must be preserved for the public good. Selling irreplaceable parkland to deal with temporary budget problems is like selling the roof of your house to pay for new windows, or burning George Washington's furniture in the fireplace to keep warm in the White House.

What are the St. Louis County parks worth to you? Their worth is immeasurable. A fine county-wide park system is a feature all homebuyers and residents in a community look for. Aside from opportunities for healthful activities, the parks add millions to the home values in neighborhoods near the parks, clean the air and water, and provide valuable wildlife habitat. For balancing the budget, it would be vastly superior to make across-the-board spending cuts and not make parks bear 70 to 80 percent of the cuts. Set up a parks district to come up with a small tax or assessment, approved by voters to pay for the parks. Charge admissions where applicable. Numerous solutions would be popular rather than closing any parks.

Gov. Jay Nixon says he is working with Dooley's office "on the potential for joint state-county management of some county parks otherwise slated to close." Is that a proposal you could support? No. It is the county's problem and I'm confident a solution can be found without having to parcel out large sections of the park system to other agencies that may have a different mission and constituents to serve.

Peggy Kruse
68, Old Jamestown, retired federal auditor/manager and active volunteer with Old Jamestown Association

Some opponents to Dooley's proposal question whether it is just an excuse to raise taxes. Do you agree or disagree? At first I thought that Dooley was just using the parks as leverage for higher taxes, but since have learned that the County has been trying to ease out of supporting the parks for some time. Check out the number of employees over the past few years. I don't think they want to get rid of the parks - they just get someone else to pay for them.

What are the St. Louis County parks worth to you? I personally wouldn't mind paying higher taxes to keep the park system at least as good as it is now. Having open space available to the public is worth a great deal, and I'm not enough aware of where the budget might be cut in other places.

Gov. Jay Nixon says he is working with Dooley's office "on the potential for joint state-county management of some county parks otherwise slated to close." Is that a proposal you could support? I could support it in theory, but am concerned about trusting the Missouri Legislature with the fate of St. Louis County Parks. And what would residents of other parts of the state think? Do they get state assistance with their parks?

Jason Rosenbaum regularly reports for the Beacon. 

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