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Overflow crowd opposes proposed cuts to county parks

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 16, 2011 - An overflowing crowd packed the St. Louis County Council's chambers, and poured into the hall, to unleash a torrent of criticism Tuesday against St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley's proposal to make steep cuts in the county's park system.

Hundreds showed up for the first public hearing of Dooley's proposed 2012 budget, prompting law enforcement officials to direct people to the few scattered empty seats.

The crowd was so immense that dozens of people had to watch the hearings outside the council's chambers on a small television.

Roughly 90 people signed up to speak out on the budget, primarily against Dooley's proposal to shut down 23 parks and lay off more than 130 park and recreation employees.

"We recognize that downsizing is necessary and we recognize that times are challenging," said Kristen Weber, a Fenton resident who turned in 2,569 signatures of people who oppose Dooley's plan.

"What we do not recognize is the choice to directly target the parks department as the answer to this alleged financial crisis," Weber said. "This is about more than numbers on a page and cutting and spending. This is about the kind of county we want St. Louis to be."

A majority of the seven-member council appeared to agree. Four -- Democrats Steve Stenger, Affton, Mike O'Mara, Florissant, and Pat Dolan, Richmond Heights, and Republican Greg Quinn, Chesterfield -- sported stickers that read "I love Parks."

Stenger, the council chairman, touched off applause when he said, "I have received hundreds of communications regarding our parks and some of the other proposals contained in the budget. I also saw and heard the chants from the plaza earlier this evening. And I speak for myself in saying this: I will not support a proposal that seeks to sell parks or close parks or a proposal that calls for mass layoffs or cuts necessary service."

Stenger has been openly skeptical of Dooley's proposal, which is viewed by some critics as payback for the opposition of Stenger and other council members to the executive's original proposal to increase county property taxes.

Quinn, O'Mara, Dolan and Council member Hazel Erby, D-University City, echoed Stenger's comments by saying they also would not support shutting down parks or laying off employees.

The council members' comments are notable, as they once again signal that Dooley's budget doesn't have the necessary four votes to pass. The County Council cannot change his proposed budget, but it can reject it -- forcing Dooley's administration to come up with another budget plan.

If the council fails to reach a consensus on the 2012 budget, the county charter calls for spending to continue at the same rate as under the current 2011 budget, on a month-to-month basis, until the county adopts a new budget.

Dooley Once Again Defends Plan

Dooley defended his plan, telling the crowd that "there is no joy indicating there's a possible layoff for anybody's job" or "closing any kind of park."

The county executive said he was required by law to propose a balanced budget and that it required some difficult decisions in 2012. "If I thought the money was there, I would appropriate the money," Dooley said.

But while stressing his desire to "work together" to come up with a solution, Dooley once again said coming to consensus wasn't going to be easy.

"Working together, we can make a difference," Dooley added. "But it's going to be difficult and it will not be pleasant. Life is not pleasant. Just like your homes, you only get so much money. After that, there's got to be decisions made.

"I will tell you this: We cannot continue to do what we used to do with the same amount of money. It's impossible. It is not going to work. There's got to be sacrifices."

Dooley's comments came a day after St. Louis County Budget Director Paul Kreidler was involved in a webcast showcasing the budget situation.

Kreidler said 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."

"We're currently living beyond our means. We're taking money from our savings account to make ends meet," Kreidler said in the webcast. "That's OK to do in the short term because we have a healthy fund balance. But we can't continue to do that."

"If we don't make a structural change to our budget to live within our means, we're going to fall below our target of 10 percent reserves," Kreidler said. "This is going to damage our ability to get credit when we go to market. And it's going to hamper our ability to deal with any unforeseen circumstances."

Stenger has questioned whether the cuts were necessary and wondered aloud whether the move was aimed at forcing a tax increase.

When asked by Council member Kathleen Burkett on Tuesday to "show her the money" to prevent cuts and layoffs, Stenger replied, "I will."

Rally Draws Hundreds

Many who attended the budgetary public hearing were also on hand for a rally organized by the Open Space Council for the St. Louis Region. Hundreds of people waved signs, made speeches and launched into chants deriding Dooley's proposal.

"This is crazy, where did this proposal come from?" asked Ron Coleman, executive director of the Open Space Council. "We can't let it go any further."

Marty Koch worked as a St. Louis County ranger and recreation planner for about 20 years before retiring. Koch also panned Dooley's suggestion to turn over parks to municipalities, the state and possibly some private organizations.

"By having multiple agencies manage parks, you lose the ability to have a comprehensive countywide plan," Koch said. "Each municipality and each agency would own the land for what they see as the best interest for their citizens," and not necessarily for the general public.

Koch said he hoped that the outcry would prompt Dooley to work with various groups to come up with different proposals.

"Forest Park was threatened, and (St. Louis) didn't shut it down," Koch said. "They got the corporate community together, they got citizens together, they got activists together. And the end result was Forest Park Forever  and $80 million has gone into making Forest Park a jewel. There's no reason we can't do that in the county parks."

Dooley said he welcomed the big crowds, adding that it showed people were engaged with their government.

"I know sometimes people say -- especially elected officials say -- they like big crowds, but normally they don't because something is afoot," Dooley said. "I will tell you, I am encouraged with this crowd here tonight. It means they are committed to this process and they want to make this work, and they have some great ideas."

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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