Overflow crowd tells County Council: Don’t close our parks

By MIKE ANTHONY

Executive Editor

Nearly all of the roughly 60 speakers who addressed the County Council last week during a public hearing on the proposed 2012 budget delivered the same message: Do not close any county parks nor lay off any Parks and Recreation Department employees.

An overflow crowd jammed into the County Council chamber Nov. 15 for the public hearing on County Executive Charlie Dooley’s recommended 2012 budget that 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.

South county parks targeted for closing are Bohrer Park, Black Forest and Ohlendorf. In addition, the Kennedy Recreation Complex pool would be closed.

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.

The County Council chamber was filled to its capacity of nearly 250 people for the budget hearing while others filled the hallway outside the chamber. About 90 people signed up to speak at the hearing with roughly 60 addressing the council.

Nearly all of the speakers voiced concerns about the closing of the parks, citing a myriad of concerns, including environmental, economic and quality-of-life issues. Many of the speakers contended the Parks and Recreation Department was disproportionately targeted for cuts. Several speakers particularly were concerned that the proposed budget would eliminate the preservation historian post held by Esley Hamilton.

In addition, various petitions with a total of more than 16,000 signatures of people opposed to the closing of the parks were presented to the County Council.

During the budget hearing, Ron Coleman, executive director of the Open Space Council for the St. Louis Region, said, “… I’m encouraged from what I’ve heard here tonight from the council and from (County Executive) Dooley. I’m pleased with the turnout we’ve had this evening. We gave out over 500 of the ‘I Love Our County Parks’ stickers, which is a pretty good turnout. We’ve been monitoring thousands of comments to our office in Kirkwood about this issue. I think we have a petition with over 6,000 — 6,000 signatures that we will turn in to you later on this evening.

“You’ve gotten our attention. This organization has always been vigilant when it comes to our local parks, our county parks, our conservation land in this county. So I hope you’ve gotten your attention a little bit this evening, too, from the good turnout that we’ve had from our taxpaying St. Louis Countians …”

He later said, “… I think that we can overcome this fiscal crisis, this so-called fiscal crisis if there is one. We’re willing to work with you, but we ask you to set aside — we need time. We ask you to set aside this ridiculous idea of putting the burden on our St. Louis County parks and closing these facilities, laying off people and potentially selling off our valued open spaces …”

Marty Koch, of Affton, worked for the Parks and Recreation Department for nearly 30 years. He said he’s heard talk of the county forming “partnerships” to keep the parks open.

“… Partnerships are great. They’re wonderful, but not having partnerships by giving away parks to other government agencies,” he said. “The county parks became the wonderful, fantastic world-class system that it is because 30, 40 years ago, advanced planners at the county parks department saw the expansion of population, the urban sprawl, and made the steps necessary to ensure we have these great spaces.

“When they are done, divided up and dished out to multiple jurisdictions, all of that planning goes down the tubes. Each jurisdiction will manage for their residents, their citizens — not necessarily the benefit of all of St. Louis County. So now I find myself in the strange position of not only trying to defend parks, but to defend the agency and keep it in existence and as the leader in the parks and recreation industry in the area from being totally cut up, dissected and farmed out …

“I don’t know what the game plan is, but I know if this parks department is destroyed and split up, no politician associated with it is — whoever you are, whatever party, you’re not going to get elected …,” Koch added.

Kirkwood resident Bob Hall, former director of the St. Louis County Parks and Recreation Department, told the council, “… When things do happen, you’ve got to make the cuts you’ve got to make and you’ve got to make things work and you’ve got to do it — and you’ve got to sit down and do the hard work. Don’t come up with what I consider to be a soft target.

“You thought it was going to be a soft target when you took a shot at the county parks. I’m sorry, guys, ladies, it’s not a soft target as you can see from the reaction we got from the community.

“This is only a part of what happens. Look what you turned out here in an apathetic kind of situation where people don’t care about government … Look at the crowd. Look at the people who showed up. This is really important. You touched a nerve in St. Louis County and it’s probably a nerve you didn’t want to touch …,” Hall said.

Hall later said, “… I think myself and other people are available for any kind of help that we might be able to give you on this issue. Just give us a call. They’ve got our name, our phone number. We’d be happy to help you out …”

Ken Meyer, of Lemay, said, “… I am one of the co-founders of the Mehlville Community Taxpayers Association, very interested in how our tax dollars are being spent. I, too, will echo that we need to keep those parks open. But at the same time we need to keep the taxes at the rate they are currently at and I appreciate your support this past year regarding that subject because if I understand and heard the news reports correctly, there’s been about 425 people added to the staff here at St. Louis County Government Center.

“And in an environment where people are losing their homes, their houses, pay cuts, we can’t go out and be asking people for tax increases. Some future date down the road, yes. But we need to get government to act like private enterprise. We take pay cuts.

“I’m a former employee of TWA. Why aren’t they around anymore? Good question. And we wrestled with building all of that new airport stuff for $360 million. TWA had 525 flights a day coming into St. Louis on a daily basis. Now there’s zip. Folks, get it under control. You hold the keys to making this happen …,” he added.

Lemay resident Cathy Armbruster took aim at what she termed “political hires” by Dooley and County Assessor Jake Zimmerman, saying those positions should be eliminated from the budget.

“… And what I understand that Charlie Dooley spent nearly $1 million to do this and (County Assessor) Jake Zimmerman about $500,000. And that is money right there spent,” she said. “And another thing I wanted to say is don’t balance your budget on the citizens’ backs and don’t raise our taxes …”

County Council Chairman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, told the Call after the budget hearing that he was impressed with both the turnout and the thoughtfulness of speakers’ comments.

“… Frankly, I was moved by how much people care about their community,” he said. “I mean it’s amazing. Those were some truly concerned citizens who want the best for everyone … They knew the issues involved very well, absolutely.”