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County parks still face budget cuts, possible layoffs in new budget

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 16, 2011 - When St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and members of the St. Louis County Council forged a budgetary agreement earlier this month, it ended five weeks of bickering and contentiousness.

Still, the accord didn't end the process. On Tuesday, the council initially approved several bills making up the 2012 budget. And while some aspects of the budget are different from the one that sparked the firestorm earlier this fall, some prominent cuts -- especially to the county's parks department -- remain.

Advocates of the county's parks are still concerned about these cuts. And with commitments from both Dooley and council members to examine the budget closely over the next year, more reductions could be on the horizon.

"We've still got some hard decisions, and it's not over yet," Dooley said earlier this month. "And next year, for 12 months, we've got to go through this process of figuring out what's in our best interests, what services we want, what's our priority."

Among other things, St. Louis County Council Chairman Steve Stenger -- an Affton Democrat and one of Dooley's fiercest critics during the process -- said he doesn't want a repeat of this year's process next year. That, he said, will require more communication from the county executive if finances take a turn for the worse.

"We need to know if there are going to be claims of extraordinary circumstances," Stenger said. "And we need to be able to maybe even become more conservative in our approach to appropriations."

Council Approves Changes

Earlier this year, Dooley submitted what turned out to be a controversial budget. Among other things, the proposal would have closed down county parks, limited snow removal in unincorporated St. Louis County and shut down the West County Satellite Office. These proposals sparked a backlash from council members, environmental groups and the public.

After much sparring, Dooley and the council members agreed to scrap the most contentious elements of the initial budget.

Changes from Dooley's original proposal, according to St. Louis County Director Paul Kreidler, would include:

  • Adding $1 million to the parks budget, which decreases the agency's budget reduction from $4.6 million to $3.6 million. Kreidler said the money was added because of an improved outlook on sales taxes.
  • Restoring $277,000 in funding for fuel ($15,000), salt ($177,000) and overtime ($85,000) for snow plowing in subdivisions in unincorporated county during snows of two inches or less.
  • Returning $372,557 to run the West County Satellite Office.

In sum, Kreidler said, about $1.7 million was added to the budget. He said other cuts in the initial budget plan -- layoffs at the departments of the recorder of deeds and code enforcement, eliminating 25 vacant positions and moving toward fee increases for code enforcement -- remain.
While no parks or facilities would be closed under the new budget, Kreidler said the department's smaller budget could still lead to layoffs.

"The agreement that was laid out by the county executive on [Dec. 6] was that they would keep the parks and facilities open, but there would still likely be staff reductions," Kreidler said. "So that's where we've asked the parks department to go give us their best recommendation of how to implement this budget at [about] $3.5 million less with those parameters."

Dooley repeatedly stressed after the agreement was announced that layoffs were a possibility. Some services to the parks could be reduced, he said, although he didn't specify which ones.

"We'll try to keep as much as we possibly can," Dooley said earlier this month. "It's never an easy thing to tell someone that they don't have a job, that they've been a faithful public employee for x amount of years, they haven't done anything wrong and then say, 'Hey, we don't have a place for you.' That's the difficult part of this. That's the part you never get over."

St. Louis County Parks Director Lindsey Swanick said her department is still analyzing how to handle her department's smaller budget. She said her agency will be looking "where we can conserve" and "where can we do business differently."

She added she's aiming for a definitive plan sometime in January. "I really would like to meet with the staff as a whole and get their buy-in, get their ideas," Swanick said. "And we'll do it together."

She also said it's not been set in stone whether full-time staff will be laid off.

"That has yet to be determined," said Swanick, adding that she may examine whether staffers may be retiring. "We always ask people when we build a budget 'are you thinking of retiring?' There's always mechanical problems. ... We've got two swimming pools that are 35 years old. And if we can't get those up and running, then we won't need to hire pool staff."

"So many of these things are unknown when you're dealing with older facilities," she added.

Swanick also said other ideas are being considered, including trash disposal at parks.

Swanick cited as an example how the state Route 66 Park handles trash as something the county parks might emulate. "If you bring in trash into the park, you take it out with you. That would save us a tremendous amount of money. But again, can you put the signage up there, can you enforce it and can you educate the public?"

Stenger said he's heard that the department "will be able to run at least through the end of this year -- 2012, the upcoming year -- without laying off anyone."

"And I know personally from my review of the budget, we didn't need to lay anyone off," Stenger said. "We could do what we needed to do through attrition -- not filling positions that come open, rather than laying off individuals who are career employees."

Marty Koch, a former park ranger who's been active against the cuts to parks, is worried about staff reductions in the parks department. At Tuesday's council meeting, Koch said he didn't "know how a system could function" if staffing in the department were reduced.

"There are thousands of citizens out there that will go to the mat and work for finding a funding solution to the parks issue," Koch said. "That will not work if the parks system is being broken up, management dispersed as I said the last time we spoke. I beg of you, please give time for the citizens to come up with a way to fund these parks."

Longer Budget Look?

Before the budget agreement was announced last week, a special budget committee suggested changes to the budget. A letter from Councilman Mike O'Mara, D-Florissant, included these changes:

  • Increasing sales tax and casino projections by $750,000 or $1 million for 2011 and 2012, which O'Mara described as "both conservative and realistic."
  • Eliminating 60 unfilled positions, which O'Mara estimated would save $4 million. That action, according to O'Mara, would provide Dooley with 264 open positions.
  • Delaying $4 million worth of capital expenditures, including $257,500 for tablet devices for the public works department, $225,000 for a new voicemail system for county operations, decreasing expenditures of computer equipment and delaying other nonemergency capital expenditures.
  • Rolling over unspent but appropriated funds from 2011 to the 2012 budget.

The report also offered other suggestions, such as opening up "regional dialogue" about finding public and private partners for the parks and reducing the size of the county's fleet of cars.
Kreidler said the first recommendation -- increasing the sales tax projections -- was the only one incorporated into the new budget.

"We're going to go through each of their recommendations and fully examine those and see what's out there that we can do," Kreidler said. "I don't really care where the ideas come from. We want to look at certainly everything that's out there."

Stenger said the recommendations "were sound recommendations that really could go into effect really as soon as the administration wants to put them into effect. We allowed them the flexibility to determine what was necessary or of paramount importance."

In any case, Kreidler added that there's going to be a concerted effort to keep costs under control during the next year.

"When we hold back spending in any given year, it's not as if we're saying, 'Well, we didn't need this money,'" Kreidler said. "We're making proactive decisions not to use it. We're telling departments 'you've got to function with five less staff than we really need.'

"So we've been deferring things," he added. "And it just comes to a point where you can't keep doing that. So, we'll certainly do our best to underspend the 2012 budget as much as possible. But I just sometimes think there's a belief that can just happen and it doesn't require tough decisions to make that happen."

Stenger said the council should be advised "as soon as possible" if "anything extraordinary" -- such as closing half of the county's parks or requesting major layoffs -- is going to be proposed.

"In 2011, I was the chair of the St. Louis County Council," Stenger said. "I met with [Dooley] every Tuesday before our council meeting. And we would discuss not only what was going to happen that night, but we discussed the future. Never in any of our discussions was it ever relayed to me in any way, shape or form that we were even heading toward a financial crisis -- much less in a financial crisis."

"What I would hope for is if there is anything that's anticipated this year -- 2012 -- that is going to be extraordinary, the council needs to know," he added. "We can't have what we had this year. We need to know well ahead of time what is out there."

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

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

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