Council members say they oppose closing of parks, cutting employees

By MIKE ANTHONY

Executive Editor

County Council members told the nearly 250 people jammed in the council chamber last week for a public hearing on the proposed 2012 county budget that they would not support the closing of county parks, layoffs of county employees and cuts in services.

County Executive Charlie Dooley’s recommended 2012 budget calls for the closing of 23 county parks, eliminating 175 jobs and not plowing streets in unincorporated areas of snow when accumulations are 2 inches or less, among other things.

Before the Nov. 15 budget hearing, hundreds of residents gathered next to the county Administration Building for a rally in support of the county parks that was organized by the Open Space Council for the St. Louis Louis Region.

At the budget hearing, County Council Chairman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, said, “… I believe that we as your elected leaders must address the county executive’s proposed budget with careful, considered practical policies — policies that place the welfare of our residents above all other interests. Your comments tonight will assist the council in working to adopt a reasonable way to address the county executive’s budget proposal …,” he said, noting he has established a Special Budget Committee.

That committee was scheduled to meet Monday afternoon — after the Call went to press. Fourth District Councilman Mike O’Mara, D-Florissant, is serving as chairman of that committee.

“… This committee will take all of your comments at this meeting into consideration. I promise you that the budget that the council finally approves will not only be fiscally prudent, but will also place a priority on the welfare of all St. Louis County residents,” said Stenger, who represents the 6th District. “Now I speak for myself in this portion of my remarks. I have received hundreds of communications regarding our parks and some of the other proposals that are contained in the budget. I also saw and heard the chants and the voices 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 in necessary services.

“I believe that such cuts are unnecessary. I also believe that it is unnecessary to have a tax increase to address any of these issues …” he added.

Seventh District Councilman Greg Quinn, R-Ballwin, who is serving his fifth term on the council, said, “… There were some comments a little earlier about my long tenure on the council and I’ve seen a number of these parks acquired over that period of time. Many more were assembled the decades before I was on the council. Many, many people were responsible for the accumulation of parks, the building of our parks system and I will not support the dismantling of that system.

“Like council member Stenger, I will not support anything that would sell parks or close parks. I think that those services are too close to the hearts of the people. They impact every citizen to a very great degree and so I think we need to do everything we can to make sure that the parks remain open. And I think we can do that. I’m convinced that the revenues are there …”

Quinn said that Dooley’s proposed budget “is disproportionately burdensome to the parks department. If we spread it out over the myriad county departments, any cuts that are necessary — if there are any cuts necessary — will be relatively small …”

Second District Councilwoman Kathleen Burkett, D-Overland, said, “… I’m speaking for myself and I can’t believe that there’s anyone on this council that wants to see any parks closed and certainly I did not get elected to lay people off. That was not even thought of in my job description when I ran for this position. Having said that, though, and I certainly am not a budget expert, I certainly am not, but I have been on this council awhile and I have watched over the years as we have cut back and cut back and trimmed and cut back.

“And I say to council member Quinn, and you also council member Stenger, if you know the money is there, please, please, please show me the money …,” she said.

Stenger said, “I will.”

Quinn said, “I will, too.”

First District Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, said,” … I’m not in favor of any park closing. I’m not in favor of any layoffs. I am optimistic about the committee that has been formed to look into the budget to find the necessary funds so that we don’t have to do that. I believe they can do it and I believe they will. I’m not supportive of any park closing or layoffs.”

Fifth District Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, said, “… I am also not in favor of closing the parks and especially layoffs. We have a top-notch parks crew and leadership in the parks department and I think they do a great job and I hate to see any of them leave …

“Hopefully, we can work that out. I appreciate the county executive’s position of having to go through a budget and it’s a tough, tough thing to do … Chairman Stenger has proposed his committee, which I think was a great idea that we can research the budget and hopefully find the means to make everything work. But I’m confident they’ll be able to come through with Mr. O’Mara’s leadership and find the money that we need to do to keep everything open. And I’m certainly in favor of keeping the parks open and I want to thank everybody for your passion in this issue …”

O’Mara said, “… I know we all have the same interest here. It’s parks and as Kathleen Burkett said, it is also preserving the jobs that we have out there. We’re in difficult times and we don’t want to see anybody put out on the street. Parks — a friend of mine out there, Dora Gianoulakis with the Spanish Lake Community Association. I believe she’s going to be speaking about some historical values of parks in the 4th District. She reminded me one of the first things I talked about was police and parks in St. Louis County and we’ve worked through some tough times and the county executive’s had to make some tough decisions, but we’ve worked through them and we’ve made them work. And I know we can make this work. We will keep our parks open and we will keep our people working … St. Louis County is a very unique community that comes together during tough times … We’re going to work through this and we’re going to keep our parks open for you …”

Dooley said, “Let me say first of all, I am extremely happy to see so many people out tonight. This is extremely, extremely encouraging. First of all, I do believe in the parks and I do love parks. But let me tell you something from this council. I am or my understanding is the first county executive that actually served on the council for nine years and been the county executive for eight years.

“So I know both sides of the equation. I, too, have lived in this county for practically all my life. The things that you love about this county are the things that I am committed to preserving in this county.”

The county executive noted that he is required to submit a proposed budget to the County Council by Nov. 1 of each year.

“My friends, I’m just like every one of you. I work somewhere every single day. There is no joy at indicating there’s a possible layoff for anybody’s job, closing anybody’s park because they’re my parks as well. They’re my family’s parks. But I will tell you this: I’m encouraged. I believe if we come up with some ideas, some cooperation, some partnerships to make this work.

“It’s going to be difficult. In these difficult times, there are no easy answers. There just aren’t. Some are worse than others. But I believe if we work together, make some great suggestions (of) what we can do, then we can get through this. But I will you this: We cannot continue to do what we used to do for the same amount of money. It’s impossible. It is not going to work. There’s going to be sacrifices ..,” he said, adding that creative ideas are needed and perhaps the county can forge some partnerships with the state, municipalities or private organizations to keep parks open.

“This is our problem. It’s not Charlie’s problem. It’s not the County Council’s problem. It is St. Louis County’s problem. Working together, we can make a difference, 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. Somebody has to make those decisions. I’m asking you this evening, let’s work together with the council. We’ve got a great council. We want to see this thing through, but it’s going to be difficult. Do not believe it’s going to be easy and I will tell you this: If I thought the money was there, I would appropriate the money …”

His budget staff understands the county’s finances “backwards and forwards.”

“The recommendation they made to me and we looked at it, we’re in a crisis. If we don’t start doing something, the future is bleak,” Dooley said, adding that St. Louis County is experiencing the same type of financial problems that every other level of government currently is experiencing. “… It doesn’t mean we can’t overcome them. It doesn’t mean we can’t work through it, but we need to do it together and that way we can make a difference and work through this problem.

“There is no problem that can’t be solved or resolved when people are willing to work together and that’s what it’s going to take …”