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Nixon steps into county parks controversy

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov 16, 2011 - Gov. Jay Nixon jumped into a controversial fight over St. Louis County parks, noting Wednesday that his administration is working with St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley.

Dooley has been under fire for a plan to close roughly 23 parks and lay off 133 employees. Opposition to the plan is fierce, as seen with a standing-room only budget meeting last night in the St. Louis County Council chambers.

On Wednesday, Nixon's office issues a statement that his administration was working with Dooley's office "on the potential for joint state-county management of some county parks otherwise slated to close." The statement noted that Lone Elk Park -- a western St. Louis County park that's home to bison and elk -- is close to Castlewood State Park, making "a state-county operation of the park" conceivable.

"County and local parks are also invaluable assets that make Missouri communities wonderful places to live, work and raise a family," Nixon said in the statement. "I am committed to working with County Executive Dooley and his team to explore ways we can help keep some of these parks open for Missourians. In these challenging times, we must continue to work together to make sure Missourians can enjoy the natural beauty of our state."

Dooley responded in a statement: "My strong desire is to protect these beautiful parks for our residents, but the current financial reality has forced us to consider some very difficult possibilities. I appreciate Gov. Nixon's willingness to work with us to identify strategies to keep these parks up and running. We are committed to continuing to work with him to identify the best path forward."

In response to questions about how the partnership would work and how a strapped state government could afford such a venture, Nixon spokesman Scott Holste wrote in an e-mail, "The objective is to find a way that can best use the available state resources (such as nearby state parks) in conjunction with the county resources to save taxpayer money."

"In the case of Lone Elk Park, it is adjacent to Castlewood State Park, so it would be possible to deploy some state resources to keep the county park operating, but with a real cost savings for taxpayers," Holste said. "Specific details about how this joint state-county partnership might work are a part of the ongoing discussions."

Asked whether "resources" would include staff or equipment, Holste said, "We're using the term resources in a fairly broad sense here, and it would just depend on what would be available to bring to bear from the state side, including personnel, equipment, etc."

Holste said that legislative involvement "would be looked as we go further down the road with this." He also said that Nixon has visited 85 of Missouri's state parks and historic sites, adding that the governor is "always looking for ways to get more folks outdoors, especially children."

"So it's natural that he'd want to help preserve some of these parks," Holste said.

That may not be only reason the usually controversy-averse Nixon would get involved. While Nixon and Dooley are known to be friends, it may well be that Nixon is looking ahead to 2012 and his own re-election bid. St. Louis County has a large reservoir of Democratic voters, which Democrats for statewide office must win if they are to win statewide. They need to avoid depressing voter turnout.

Dooley's plan has received a cold reception by members of the St. Louis County Council. Five council members -- including four Democrats -- said yesterday at the meeting they would not support any proposal to shut down parks or lay off employees. That's notable, because four council members must vote in favor of any budget for it to be approved.

Council members, including Council Chairman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, have questioned whether the budget situation necessitates closing down parks. He's also said Dooley may be going through with the move to extract a tax increase out of the council.

Dooley, who has defended the cuts as necessary moves in an uncertain economic times, has often broached the possibility of partnering with municipalities, the state or private entities as ways to keep the parks open. Tuesday night, for instance, he said there needed to be "creative ideas" that included partnerships "with the state, municipalities or welfare groups or private organizations."

Some municipalities have bristled at the idea of taking over parks. Fenton Mayor Dennis Hancock told the Beacon this month that no one from St. Louis County government had talked with officials from his city about the proposal. That lack of communication prompted Hancock to say that he's "not sure how real this gift-giving is going to be."

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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