Impact of budget cuts on parks to be noticeable, director says

Maintenance to be deferred at county parks, director says

By Kari Williams

Though St. Louis County parks might look pretty good when they open for the spring season April 1, Parks and Recreation Department Director Lindsey Swanick said they could look worn and ragged as the year progresses.

That look stems from the decision to cut funding in the Parks and Recreation Department by about $3.6 million for the current fiscal year. Among other cuts, the department will lay off 52 funded positions and reduce park maintenance and playground renovations.

The decision came as part of a compromise on the county’s 2012 budget, which originally included closing more than 20 county parks, eliminating 175 jobs and not plowing streets in unincorporated areas when snow accumulations are 2 inches or less.

The adopted budget — a compromise between County Executive Charlie Dooley and the County Council — allows all county parks to remain open at a reduced rate and for the aforementioned snow accumulations to be plowed. Dooley noted some layoffs still would be necessary.

As such, the parks department reduced its budget from $26.1 million to $22.5 million and will look at a “variety of things” to counter the department’s layoffs, Swanick said. For example, if a bathroom is broken it may be locked rather than repaired, recreational programs may be cut and some playgrounds will not be replaced.

“We’ve never been in this position before, so I don’t have a crystal ball,” Swanick said. “Everything is just not going to be maintained to the level it had been maintained in the past, whether mowing, weed eating. Our day camps will still be completely supervised. We don’t put people in harm’s way. Safety will still be very high.”

Once the decision was made to keep all parks open, Swanick said department officials had to determine how best to complete their mission given the layoffs.

“Everyone in county parks was affected, whether administration … recreation, rangers. And in addition we lost 12 full-time positions that were vacant,” she said.

Chief Park Ranger John Nesbit, who has worked for the county since 1978, said this is the first time he has seen budget cuts of this magnitude.

“I understand that it’s tough budget times for everyone, and a lot of times parks and recreation is kind of viewed as icing on the cake, but from a professional standpoint I would say parks and recreation (offers) open space, green space … (and) is vital to a community’s health,” Nesbit said.

Sixth District County Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, said because of the recent cuts and layoffs, county parks are going to suffer from a lack of personnel.

“It really gets into the particularities of each facility,” Stenger said. “(Say at) Suson Park, someone is required to feed the animals, maintain the grounds and while there may be an individual available to do that … if the county executive follows through with the threat to cut those individuals from parks, we’ll have fewer people to do … various tasks.”

Nesbit said he let go three full-time park rangers, two vacant, full-time park ranger positions and one part-time dispatcher from his staff of about 33. On a good day, Nesbit has a supervisor, dispatcher and seven park rangers to cover the 12,700 acres of St. Louis County parks.

“In perspective, when you have the seven people on for the shift — and we run two shifts — number-wise it seems like … a lot of people. If you divide it down … there’s not a lot of us, given the size of the parks we’re responsible for doing those things in,” he said.

With the reductions, Nesbit said there may only be five rangers per shift.

“I’m currently reassessing. I’m taking the positions, the filled positions we have left, and I’m kind of realigning where people are going to be reporting to,” he said. “We have patrol sectors. One park ranger typically comes on at a park, and he or she is responsible for several parks.”

Nesbit has two patrol sectors in south county, two in north county, two in west county, one at Creve Coeur Park and one at McDonnell Park.

“I’m kind of looking at where people are going to be reporting to, and we’re going to have to share a little bit,” he said. “A person is going to be responsible for more parks than they were before, especially when (others are) sick or on vacation.”

Having a dedicated sales tax for the parks could help recoup some of the lost funding, according to Swanick. Another option, which she said would require a vote of the County Council, would be to roll up the county’s tax rate and use the revenue to fund park maintenance.

Rolling up the county’s tax rate to fund park maintenance, according to Stenger, is “the county executive speaking through Lindsey Swanick for a tax increase.”

“They are pushing for a tax increase and are pushing hard,” he said. “And I am absolutely opposed to it, particularly when we don’t need it …”

Stenger said St. Louis County is “certainly not in a cash crunch,” but rather, heading toward recovery, not a double-dip recession.

“We see employment numbers improving slightly and the only thing we get from the county executive is gloom and doom,” he said.

County voters in April 2004 defeated a proposed one-eighth-of-a-cent sales tax intended to provide an independent and dedicated funding source for St. Louis County parks. The initiative, called Proposition P, was defeated by 678 votes with more than 120,000 people casting ballots.

Then-County Council Chairman Skip Mange, R-Town and Country, and Dooley served as co-chairmen of Citizens for Quality Parks, a campaign committee formed to promote the passage of the proposed sales tax.

At last week’s County Council meeting, legislative action was requested to authorize amendments to parks and recreation fees, “stating these modifications reflect rising operational costs and will allow the parks department to continue to provide quality programs and facilities.”

Swanick said the fee increases are not related to the recent cuts and are done every two to three years in monitoring costs.