Crestwood’s public services director has plan, lacks revenue to complete it

City forced to defer park improvements, stormwater projects, vehicle maintenance

By BURKE WASSON

When it comes to Crestwood’s public services of maintenance, public works and recreation, Director of Public Services Jim Eckrich has a plan, but lacks the revenue to fully complete it.

Due to such factors as an annual drop in sales-tax revenue and the city’s yearly Aquatic Center debt-service payment of $1,056,840 through 2012, several facets of the city’s public services have been deferred or reduced.

These include delaying park improvements and stormwater projects until at least 2012, deferring vehicle maintenance and cutting 20 public-service employees — or 45 percent of the city’s public-service staff — since 2002.

Despite collecting less revenue to work with each year, Eckrich has continued to develop and administer plans for the city’s public services, which covers three divisions — maintenance, public works and recreation. Those include the maintenance of 50 miles of city streets, 120 acres spread across seven park properties and numerous vehicles and equipment used by police, administration and public services.

While the average Pavement Condition Index for city streets is 75 of 100, Crestwood officials have attempted to keep each street greater than 60 due to a lack of funding.

“The city needs to adequately fund street maintenance in order to satisfactorily maintain our streets,” Eckrich said. “I have a (five-year) street-maintenance plan that calls for $700,000 (per year) in contractual maintenance … And $700,000 will allow us to keep our streets in a similar condition to what they are now. The goal being keep the streets above a 60 … We need to continue to perform preventative maintenance in order to extend the life of streets with our reduced maintenance personnel … We don’t have the type of funding where we can just let streets deteriorate and then go in several years later and reconstruct the whole thing. That’s never going to work with this program.”

At a March 18 town-hall meeting reserved for discussion of the city’s public services, Eckrich also emphasized that deferring maintenance on city vehicles — which range from police cars and administrative vehicles to snowplow trucks and one fuel truck — will only add more costs over time.

“Vehicle equipment must be replaced on a scheduled basis to allow employees to do their jobs,” Eckrich said. “And with the exception of four trucks, all public-service vehicles and equipment, every piece we have, is in excess of 10 years old. You can’t run a fleet with one classified mechanic with a fleet that has vehicles of this age. It just doesn’t work. The city has, and I’m going to use air quotes, ‘saved money’ by not replacing vehicles. I don’t know that that’s money saved. I think that’s just money deferred. These vehicles are going to have to be replaced.”

At the Board of Aldermen’s March 25 meeting, aldermen did approve the purchase of a new 2.5-ton truck with a snowplow and salt spreader as well as other snow removal equipment at a cost of $193,465, which was under the city’s 2008 budget.

With regard to maintenance of the city’s parks, Eckrich said no improvements can be made until 2012 at the earliest because of the city’s annual debt-service payment of $1,056,840 through 2012 to retire the certificates of participation that were issued to fund construction of the Aquatic Center.

“Rayburn Park, Sanders Park and Spellman Park are in need of improvements currently being deferred until at least 2012,” Eckrich said. ” Why 2012? The year 2012 is a key year in the city because 2012 is when the debt service for the Aquatic Center is paid off. You can talk on this topic all day, but essentially when the city passed the park and stormwater tax (in 2000), the intent at the time was to spend 75 percent of that money on park improvement and 25 percent of that on stormwater with the first of the park improvements being the Aquatic Center.

“Well, that plan was all well and good when the city was getting $2 million in sales tax out of this fund. But that’s dramatically been reduced here recently. And what’s happened now is the debt service for the Aquatic Center cripples that fund and there’s no money for other park improvements and no money for stormwater.”

Eckrich continued that while he is personally discouraged that the city can’t afford to make stormwater improvements that were to be funded by a park and stormwater sales tax approved by voters in 2000, the drop in sales-tax revenue across the city since that time makes those once-planned projects unaffordable.

“The city passed a tax to fund park and stormwater projects,” Eckrich said. “(Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District) is the regulatory authority for stormwater projects. That being said, MSD wasn’t being as responsive to the city as we wanted. So this tax was passed. A stormwater master plan was made and projects were listed. Unfortunately, because of the previously mentioned drop in revenues in the park and stormwater fund, those projects can’t really be funded.

“I don’t like saying that. I went to four and a half years of school to be a civil engineer because I like doing these kinds of projects. By the same token, I’m a fiscally conservative person like many of you are. I can’t recommend projects that we can’t afford. I hope that something happens and we can do some of these before 2012. But I think if I stood up here and told you that oh yeah, we’re going to start doing stormwater projects next year, I wouldn’t be honest. I don’t see how the city is going to afford stormwater projects until 2012.”

The city has been successful, however, in attaining funding for 2008 projects like the reconstruction of Grant Road, contracted slab replacement and refurbishing the Community Center floor. In 2009, city officials plan to reconstruct the Pardee Road bridge and complete an asphalt mill and overlay on “several streets.”

The public works division of the city’s public-service department will also continue to administer the city’s sewer lateral program, perform deferred building maintenance through a seven-year plan, administer the city’s solid-waste contract with Veolia Environmental Services until that contract expires in April 2009 and regulate animal control.

The cost of public works and maintenance is $2,179,772 in the 2008 budget.

“The city must begin to fund building maintenance at an adequate level and stop deferring required maintenance,” Eckrich said. “You don’t save money if you don’t do work that you need to do and postpone it until next year. You’ll probably only cost yourself money. By the same token, you don’t want to be doing work you don’t need to do. But if work needs to be done, you need to fund it. The city needs to consider reinstating a building-maintenance technician to address our building and custodial needs.”

And while he admits that administering the city’s solid-waste pickup is “one of the bigger thorns in my side,” Eckrich defends the city’s practice of contracting that service.

“Why doesn’t the city let residents pick their own people and their own haulers?” Eckrich said. “This is a real controversial issue in St. Louis County. The city’s done this for a large number of years … The main reasons are one, everybody has trash on the same day. In unincorporated St. Louis County in the subdivision I used to live in, you had trash cans out every day. The second issue is — and people are going to debate this, but I’d argue with them all day about it — when you do a bulk service for a large number of people when the provider is providing that same service for everybody, you’re going to get a lower rate. People don’t believe that. But the price that your service is here, if you go to unincorporated St. Louis County, they’re going to charge you 30 percent more. It’s going to be higher. The third issue, close to my heart, is that the trash trucks cause more damage to your streets than a thousand vehicles do.

“Every time they drive on it, you’re harming your infrastructure … That’s why this is done. I’d love to get rid of (solid-waste administration). The administration of it is quite honestly one of the bigger thorns in my side. But I think it’s a good thing for the city.”

As for the parks and recreation division of public services, those employees oversee the Community Center, programs like summer day camp and special events, lifeguard contracting and operation of the Aquatic Center and coordination with the Sappington House.

Eckrich also identified the need to secure “adequate funding to stop the deterioration of” aging parks, the Community Center, the Aquatic Center and the Sappington House.

The recreation division costs $2,341,917 in the 2008 budget between $1,285,077 in expenditures and $1,056,840 in debt service to the Aquatic Center.

While he has been approached about cutting the nearly $1.3 million in expenses in the city’s recreation division, Eckrich is skeptical of that move because of the loss of revenue that would result in cutting expenses for recreation programs that collect fees.

“This $1.3 million, you can’t just reduce that by cutting things,” Eckrich said. “What happens is if you cut things, you’re going to cut revenue. The Community Center in the recreation budget has revenues associated with it. If you cut expenditures here, you’re also going to cut revenues.

“The way we look at programs is we try to look at all our expenses related to a program and then try to run those at a small profit. You could look at this number and cut $400,000 off of it … But you’re probably going to cut at least $100,000 in revenues associated with it. Especially in recreation, you can’t just look at things on a black and white basis. You have to look at both items, both revenues and expenditures, when you talk about recreation.”

The city’s 2008 budget includes $2,179,772 toward public works and $2,341,917 toward parks and recreation out of a total budget of $12,676,109.

Crestwood’s remaining 2008 budgeted expenses include $3,017,947 for police protection, $2,831,407 for fire protection and $2,305,066 for administration.