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County budget compromise reached, no parks to close

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 7, 2011 - St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and members of the St. Louis County Council have declared an end to a contentious budget battle, forging a deal keeping nearly two dozen county parks open.

Roughly five weeks after proposing a budget that included closing nearly two dozen parks, Dooley announced during Tuesday's council meeting that he would amend the budget so that no parks would be closed. He also said a satellite office in western St. Louis would remain open and snow removal would not be changed in unincorporated St. Louis County.

"I think we've done two things with this compromise budget," Dooley said during the meeting. "Number one, I think the council and myself are all on the same page. And we've given ourselves 12 months to work through this process for a long-term fix. But it is a situation we can address together. And I'm just thankful that we can get together and work together as a team."

Dooley added that the budget would still include layoffs, although he did not elaborate where the roughly 40 to 50 job cuts would occur. He also said after the meeting that some services to parks could be reduced. "That's the sad part about that, it's something we can't get away from," Dooley said.

"That's still going to be a situation that we'll have to address in the coming months on the layoffs. The deal ends a contentious five weeks that pitted the Democratic executive versus the Democratic-controlled council. Dooley provoked a swarm of controversy with his parks proposal, garnering opposition from nearly every member of the council, environmental groups, municipal leaders and ordinary citizens.

But the budget deal seemed to signal a thaw -- at least for now -- between the Democratic officials. Dooley and Council Chairman Steve Stenger shook hands before the meeting and were complimentary during and after Tuesday's session.

"I think it's great, it's a great day for the people of St. Louis County," said Stenger after the meeting. "This was a situation where we heard from so many people about how much they cared about their parks. And to see that they're going to remain open and that all of our citizens are going to enjoy those parks, it's a great feeling. It's a great day. It really is."

Some members of the public who were planning to criticize Dooley's proposal in public comments instead provided congratulations for the announcement of a budget deal. Other members of the council were also complimentary, signaling that there would enough support to pass a budget. Failure to do so would have prompted the county to adopt the 2011 budget next year on a month-to-month basis."

Everybody discussed this and came to, I think, a very amicable conclusion," said Councilman Greg Quinn, R-Chesterfield. "It's not like Congress. We were able to put this together."

Peace And Love

The admiring tone was a marked change from the past week, which featured some of the fiercest public sparring yet between Dooley and Stenger. In producing the budget, Dooley said the cuts to the parks were necessary in the wake of declining property tax revenues and a sagging economy.

But Stenger questioned whether Dooley's budget was a way to extract a tax increase out of the council. He also cast doubt on whether revenue estimates for 2012 were correct.

Stenger is considered a possible rival to Dooley's potential re-election efforts in 2014. The public sparring between the two escalated last Tuesday when Dooley chastised Stenger during a special budget committee meeting. Among other things, Dooley said that being the county council chairman did not make Stenger an expert on the budget.

That led to a testy exchange between Stenger -- a certified public accountant and attorney -- and Dooley.

Things escalated on KMOX's Mark Reardon Show. When Reardon asked about Dooley's educational background specific to the budget, Stenger responded "I don't think there's an educational background. I think Charlie graduated from high school. I don't think he has any specialized training in accounting or anything like that."

Dooley sent out a press release demanding an apology, something Stenger refused to do. And the controversy was stirred up further when Mike Jones -- a senior aide to Dooley -- got into a heated back-and-forth Monday with Reardon about whether questions over the county executive's educational background were racially motivated. [Read KMOX's report]

But both Stenger and Dooley said they were ready to end hostilities and move on. Stenger said he was hopeful that the council would be able to pass the budget before the end of the year.

"It was a hot debate," Stenger said. "And it was a hot debate because it's over such an important issue. I think at the end of the day, cooler heads prevailed. And we got together. And we arrived at a compromise. And I think it's great. I think it's absolutely fantastic."

Dooley said he and the council "are beyond" the contentious debate that defined recent weeks. He said he was "elated" that the council had agreed to take a hard look at aspects of the budget over the next year." We're focused on the county's business, the county's budget," Dooley said. "That's what people expect of us. That's what we're doing."

This is the second time in recent months Dooley effectively backed down from a provocative stand. In September, he abandoned a plan to raise property taxes to pay for employee raises. Asked if the altered budget amounted to a political loss, Dooley said "this is not a defeat -- this is a success."

"For the first time I think our council has the opportunity to understand that we have a structural budget problem," Dooley said. "It's not just a park problem. It's a budget problem."

Asked whether he was celebrating a political victory for himself, Stenger said "no, I'm celebrating for the people of St. Louis County. The victory's theirs -- they have their parks," Stenger said. "which I think is phenomenal. That's what I'm celebrating."

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

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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