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With discord behind it, County Council passes 2012 budget

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 20, 2011 - The St. Louis County Council quietly passed its 2012 budget Tuesday, bringing an end to an, at times, contentious process that showcased a rift between the council and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley.

On its last council session of 2011, council members passed a multitude of bills making up next year's budget. All of them passed without opposition or debate. The affirmative votes ensure that the budget will be signed before the Dec. 31 deadline.

The budget's quiet passage was in stark contrast to how the process played out since early November. The Democratic county executive sparked the skirmish with the Democratic-controlled council when he submitted a budget that included closing a number of county parks, reducing snow removal for unincorporated St. Louis County and layoffs.

Dooley's proposal led to a revolt among most of the county council, which refused go along with closing parks. It also spurred a backlash among environmental groups and ordinary citizens who packed the council chambers to speak against the proposal.

Soon after a heated back-and-forth between Dooley and St. Louis County Council Chairman Steve Stenger, D-Affton,  the two sides struck a deal. Dooley removed the controversial elements of his budget, but warned of possible layoffs.

St. Louis County Parks Director Lindsey Swanick said last week that her department is still analyzing how to handle her department's smaller budget. Dooley said that process -- which Swanick predicted would conclude sometime next month -- was ongoing.

Stenger told the Beacon last week that Dooley needed to do a better job communicating with the council on budgetary matters, adding "if there is anything that's anticipated this year -- 2012 -- that is going to be extraordinary, the council needs to know." And in an interview after the council adjourned, Dooley said he would make an effort to converse more effectively with the council about budgetary matters.

That could include, he said, having a standing committee where the council and the administration work toward a budget. Currently, the council does not have such a committee. He said such a committee could pull in experts and ordinary citizens to provide insight and ideas.

"Our greatest challenge is communicating with the county council, making sure everybody understands where we are and being open and transparent," Dooley said. "We've just got to do a better job."

He also said next year could be an opportunity for parks advocates to provide proposals. At last week's meeting, Marty Koch, a former park ranger who has been involved in the opposition to the parks cuts, mentioned that a group was forming that would "go to the mat and work for finding a funding solution to the parks issue."

"We get the opportunity for those concerned about parks to step up to the plate and say 'Hey, these are some great ideas -- how can we make these work,'" Dooley said.

Dooley was not receptive to changing the county's budgetary process. Currently, the county executive's office prepares the budget and the council can only approve or disapprove the entire proposal. While council members can prompt the executive to make changes, they cannot alter individual line items.

Dooley said, "Whatever the county charter says, that's what we adhere to. ... It does work. It's been working for quite a long time. This is one of the bumps in the road. We've got a great system. We've just got to better communicate with our council members and those who are interested about what we're doing and why we're doing it."

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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