Lily Springer is worried about the animals that live in the 23 St. Louis County parks slated for closure in the 2012 budget.
The 10-year-old spoke to a crowd of more than 120 at a public hearing Tuesday night that gave residents the opportunity to voice their concerns about the proposed budget. She also brought a petition with 241 signatures of adults in favor of keeping the parks open.
“I love the parks,” she said. “Did you ever think about the animals who live there in their natural homes in the parks? Please keep the parks for the children now and in the future.”
After speaking, she asked County Executive Charlie Dooley to wear an “I Love Parks” sticker, given out at a rally before the meeting.
Lily was one of approximately 60 people who spoke at the public hearing, and out of those people, more than 50 spoke about sparing county park land from budget cuts. The St. Louis County Council chambers were completely filled, and a crowd overflowed outside of the room at the start of the meeting.
Other residents offered solutions to the budget shortfall that totals $26 million, according to Dooley.
Ballwin resident Jim Kent, who has worked for the St. Louis County Parks and Recreation Department for more than 32 years, said the county should look first at the auditor and assessor’s office before other departments and then consider a countywide furlough program.
“It allows people to keep their jobs,” he said. “Furloughed days would be based on the employees’ salary.”
Kent suggested an employee salary of $30,000 would garner three unpaid days off, a $90,000 salary would require nine days off, and the County Executive salary would equal 14 days off.
“Cuts should be started with the newly political hires, with their salaries staring between $60 and $80,000. And from what I understand, Charlie Dooley spent nearly $1 million to do this and Jake Zimmerman about $500,000,” said Lemay resident Cathy Armbruster. “Don’t balance your budget on the citizens’ backs and don’t raise our taxes.”
Armbruster’s anti-tax sentiments were echoed by at least five other speakers, including co-founder Ken Meyer.
Speakers acknowledged the difficult economic climate that not only the county, but they themselves are facing. Kristen Weber, a Fenton resident who spoke at the meeting, started a petition because she thought the parks were being unfairly targeted in the budget cuts.
“I have learned that residents recognize the economic hardships our county faces, we recognize that downsizing is necessary and we recognize that times are challenging, but what we do not recognize is the choice to directly target the Parks Department as to the answer to this ‘alleged’ financial crisis,” she said.
Ron Coleman from the Open Space Council, who organized the rally before the hearing, presented a 6,000-signature petition to the council. Maryland Heights resident Kim Cuddeback also turned in two petitions totaling 6,850 signatures.
While county residents and non-residents advocated for the parks and a more in depth look at the budget, Mitch Leachman pointed to a county initiative that specifically called for the preservation of parks and open spaces.
The St. Louis County Green and Growing effort began in 2009 by Dooley with the goal of turning St. Louis County into the greenest county in America.
Leachman pointed out that the effort began during the recession when the county knew difficult economic times were ahead.
“Of the 10 priority sustainability goals for the program, at least four are directly related to a vibrant and healthy public parks system, including No. 5, to preserving open spaces,” he said. “I can’t make it too much plainer than the county’s own documentation.”
The document states, “This important governance issue also includes investing, maintaining and sustaining the system with sufficient assets in land, staffing, research and funding…”
Leachman recommended the county council reject the 2012 proposed budget.
County Council Chairman Steve Stenger (D-Affton) said he would not support a proposal that seeks to sell or close parks, nor will he accept a proposal that calls for mass layoffs, cuts in service, or a tax increase.
When District 7 Councilman Greg Quinn agreed with Stenger in his opening remarks, District 2 representative Kathleen Kelly Burkett said, “I can’t believe there’s anyone on this council that wants to see any parks closed…(but) if you know the money is there, please, please, please show me the money.”
Stenger and Quinn both cut her off with an “I will.”
The council’s role is to review and approve or reject the budget. A special budget committee is scheduled to meet at 4 p.m. on Monday at 41 S. Central Ave. in Clayton to futher discuss funding options.
Council members must pass a budget by the start of 2012.