County Parks Shortfall Predicted Despite Action Plan
Councilman Steve Stenger disagrees with the allocation for St. Louis County Parks as County Executive Charlie Dooley’s budget office reduces funding for the department.
The St. Louis County Parks Department is still $500,000 in the red despite laying off 20 employees and increasing revenue by $193,780.
Those numbers were presented to the St. Louis County Council Tuesday in a plan meant to make the parks department more efficient. Acting Parks Director Tom Ott created a business plan that outlined a strategy to keep parks providing the basic services while reducing costs.
The plan comes seven months after County Executive Charlie Dooley proposed closing 23 parks and laying off more than 100 employees because of a budget crisis. Early budget projections showed a $10 million deficit, according to the county executive.
*At the end of the year, the county received unexpected revenues, leaving the parks open. Approximately $3 million in reserves were reported at the end of 2011,
The parks department has been receiving budget cuts dating back 10 years. In that period, the department's staff has been reduced by 100 employees in an effort to help save $6.2 million.
“Rising costs and decreased budgets have squeezed the department from both ends,” Ott said. “Until parks were threatened with closure last fall, most people would not have noticed that we have been experiencing decreased operating budgets. People don’t notice that staff is gone, the trucks are 13 years old and that our roofs need replacing in our buildings.”
The county executive's budget office projected the $500,000 shortfall in estimates given to the parks department, a number councilman Steve Stenger (D-Affton) disagrees with.
“The budget office is the county executive (Charlie Dooley),” Stenger said after the meeting. “Last year, they tried to create this budget crisis. Well this year, they can’t create a budget crisis because I think we pretty much dispelled that there was no budget crisis. So this year, they’re creating a parks crisis.
“Get over it, let’s just be adults, let’s just approach this as adults and with some integrity. Because the problem isn’t Tom Ott, it’s the integrity of the figures that he’s being given by the administration and there is none.”
Stenger said not funding the parks would be denying taxpayers the services they deserve.
The parks department once received $12 million a year from the general revenue fund. That number shrank to $1 million this year and Ott expects funding to be completely cut next year. He added that the parks have received allocations from the general fund as long as he has been in the department.
“If we have the money sitting there in the general revenue fund, why are we not spending it on parks? Why are we withholding it?” Stenger said.
Five Objectives for the Parks Department
In the business plan, Ott presented five steps that would help the parks department continue services while adding revenue:
1. Reduce energy and fuel usage
2. Marketing: Increase reach to citizens though social media, communication services and improved branding
3. Improve service delivery and internal communications: the department started a director’s newsletter and implemented a new safety program. The program reduced workers’ compensation claims from 65 in the first six months of 2011 to 14 in 2012. This netted a savings of $196,000.
4. Providing basic services at the appropriate funding level
5. Increase revenue:
- The department will establish a nonprofit parks foundation to provide financial support.
- Revenue is up $193,780 from 2011 due to new events. The department added another night to the Winter Wonderland, netting $19,000. Food truck Tuesdays in Tilles Park brought in 800-900 people and earned $1,000. The event will be held in rotating parks every second Tuesday from 5 to 8 p.m.
- A possible tax increase would bring $6 million to the parks. Proposition P may be on the ballot in April 2013.
*Editor's Note: This sentence has been changed from the original article to clarify information about the budget process.