Dooley’s employee layoffs ‘unnecessary,’ Stenger says

Stenger says ‘political hires’ should be cut first by Dooley

By Kari Williams

The county employee layoffs recently announced by County Executive Charlie Dooley are “completely unnecessary at this time,” according to 6th District County Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton.

Stenger, who served as council chairman last year, led the opposition to Dooley’s recommended 2012 budget that called for closing 23 county parks, eliminating 175 jobs and not plowing streets of snow in unincorporated areas when accumulations are 2 inches or less, among other cuts.

The county executive’s proposed 2012 budget met overwhelming opposition from residents and the County Council, prompting Stenger to establish a Special Budget Review Committee. In December, Dooley announced all county parks will remain open and snow accumulations of 2 inches or less in unincorporated areas will be plowed under a compromise he reached with the council on the 2012 budget.

Dooley said all county parks would remain open “at a reduced rate,” but noted some layoffs still would be necessary.

Stenger, citing the recommendations of the Special Budget Committee, said at the time he remained skeptical of the need for layoffs.

He reiterated that stance last week in response to Dooley’s announcement that 20 full-time employees from the Parks and Recreation Department would be laid off, along with four part-time positions.

The county, according to Stenger, has about a $400 million operating budget and the cuts to the parks department total roughly $4 million.

“Four million dollars is 1 percent of the $400 million budget. We are not in a cash-flow crunch. We are meeting — more than meeting — all of our current obligations,” Stenger said.

In a memo to the council, Dooley wrote, “The 2012 budget adopted by the County Council established a $22.6 million parks budget. This budget compromise called for all parks and facilities to remain open and operational during 2012. I directed the Department of Parks and Recreation to develop a spending plan for the 2012 budget.

“Because all parks and facilities must remain open, the department had no choice but to reduce service levels across the entire parks system.”

The plan, Dooley wrote, includes:

• A reduction of 52 funded positions within the budget — 32 full time and 20 part time.

• A forecast layoff of 24 people from the parks department — 20 full time and four part time.

• A reduction in such park maintenance activities as trash pickup and restroom cleaning.

• A reduction in services — shorter pool seasons and the elimination of some programs.

Because fiscal 2012 already is under way, Dooley spokesman Mac Scott said county officials had to start working within the budget. Reviewing revenue numbers from the last quarter of 2011, Scott said what was collected in sales tax revenue was “a little bit higher than what we factored in the budget.”

“… Increases in sales tax (revenue) allowed a little more cushion … (and) gave us a little more room to maneuver and make the gap a little bit easier to close,” he said.

Scott said the department directors chose which positions to eliminate given their needs and budget constraints.

Stenger said Dooley did not communicate to the council why the cuts “are being made in such an immediate fashion.”

“Charlie did not consult with the council. He called council members the Monday before the Tuesday he sent out pink slips to the employees. He did not ask for anyone’s opinion or input …,” Stenger said.

Scott said the County Council was made aware of how the park budget was going to be finalized.

“They certainly had input into how the budget was shaped up. In terms of individual layoffs or decision to cut services …, (they were) not involved in that,” he said.

Scott said the council was involved in urging Parks and Recreation Department Director Lindsey Swanick and Dooley to keep the parks open.

However, eliminating the positions goes against a promise made to the council, specifically to Chairman Michael O’Mara, D-Florissant, that no employees would be laid off, according to Stenger.

“Just three weeks into the budget year, without any real notice or any discussion, (Dooley has) gone ahead with the drastic action of terminating employees and cutting necessary services,” Stenger said.

Scott said it was his understanding O’Mara asked if there was any way to make the budget work with the funds available for this year without layoffs.

“A promise came back that that’s what they would attempt to do,” he said. “What ended up happening is what you have there. There was just no way to close that almost $4 million gap without having some layoffs.”

Before laying off employees, Stenger said Dooley should have terminated some of the “political hires” made over the last 18 months when a hiring freeze was in place. Combined, Dooley and County Assessor Jake Zimmerman have about 11 “political hires” on the county payroll, according to Stenger.

“Those hires bring very little value to taxpayers and really only bring political value to (Dooley) and … those political hires are highly paid county workers being paid out of a county coffer,” Stenger said, “and when faced with the decision of whether to (eliminate) career county people … or firing political hires, the decision should be easy … if it even needs to be made.”

Scott said the parks budget needs to be reduced to roughly $22.6 million from the $26.5 million spent during 2011.

“We need to get the parks budget to the $18.5 million that represents the funds that are raised specifically for county parks. So (the 2011 budget was) about $8 million over what it is that parks get as dedicated funds,” he said.

For 2013, Scott said the goal is to have the parks department operate on roughly $18.5 million.

“How we get there and how we go about accomplishing that, we’re hoping to get buy-in from the public, County Council, as well as the people who work on our budget, to figure out how we do that and maintain all of our parks and maintain services in the parks at a level people come to expect,” Scott said.

The elimination of the positions is somewhat staggered because of how notices were distributed to the affected employees, according to Scott.

“There are regulations and rules and things that have to be followed,” he said. “I don’t think it’s all immediately. The department directors can be more specific.”

Stenger said with the loss of the parks employees, residents will “feel the loss in the county parks system.”

“I’m very disappointed with the way they were so haphazardly let go,” Stenger said.

Swanick could not be reached for comment before press time.