It's a topic that has residents and organizations taking action in and around St. Louis County. The County Council is considering closing some county parks including, Lone Elk, George Winter Park, and Unger Park.
In an effort to close a $10 million budget shortfall, County Executive Charlie Dooley planned closing 19 county parks and one community center in his 2012 proposed budget.
Although none of the possible closures are in Town and Country or Manchester, the City of Manchester is now joining residents in urging county councilmembers to keep the parks open.
This week, Manchester's Mayor David Willson sent a letter on behalf of the city to St. Louis County Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger urging her not to vote to close the parks. Wasinger is the representative for District 3 of St. Louis County, which includes Manchester and Town and Country. A copy of that letter is in the PDF portion of this article. The letter was also copied to all county council members and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley.
"That's what people here do. They go to the parks in their time off and it's free," Willson said. He also said that he and other area mayors recently discussed the need to keep the parks open.
The county parks closest to Manchester are and parks.
Although the possible closure of 23 county parks and facilities wasn't on the St. Louis County Council's agenda on Tuesday, the subject was fresh in the minds of 10 speakers who came to advocate on behalf of the parks.
“Our purpose for speaking tonight is to plead with you to make the 2012 budget cuts fair and equitable across the board,” said Mehlville resident and parks volunteer Bonnie Lorenz. “A family may not be able to afford to go to the show, or a baseball game, but they can go to one of our wonderful 69 parks for free.”
“Don’t let your legacy in office show that you were responsible for closing parks in our great county,” she said.
Before the meeting, County Executive Charlie Dooley made it clear the county would not be selling park land, but needed other solutions for the budget deficit.
“It is my hope that as we move forward, the county council and I come up with some alternatives to make something work,” he said. “The parks are not going anywhere, we’re not going to sell any parks. They’re going to stay in St. Louis County.”
Announced Nov. 1, Dooley’s 2012 budget recommended cuts in several departments, but most noticeably in the Department of Parks and Recreation, which oversees the activities for more than 12,700 acres of land.
Under the proposal, the county’s operating fund of $359.4 million would reflect $10 million in savings, a number Dooley said was a deficit in the budget.
In a move that would save the county $4.376 million, 23 parks would be closed including 17 athletic fields, 6 tennis courts, 12 basketball courts and more than 62 trail miles.
Suson Park and its petting zoo are on the chopping block along with the Kennedy Recreation Complex. No cuts at Jefferson Barracks or Sylvan Springs Park were recommended.
The cuts would also eliminate 133 staff positions, more than 40 of which are full time.
Dooley said he welcomed ideas in the open process and asked residents to pitch solutions.
“You’re talking about a decision that was made from a viewpoint, there were no easy decisions,” he said. “You’ve got to start somewhere, you have to open up dialogue.”
Two residents offered suggestions on how to save the parks.
Kirkwood resident Bob Nelson, who serves on the County Parks Board, called for a 2-cent tax increase in the county parks tax rate. He said residents would not need to vote to raise the tax rate from 5 to 7 cents.
According to his calculations, a house valued at $144,000 (the county’s average value) would cost its owners $6.78 a year with the increase and would fund the parks completely without layoffs or closures.
Nelson also said the Parks Board was not asked for input on how many or what parks were selected for closing, when questioned by Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger.
Ed Golterman, another County resident, had a different suggestion.
“I think any talk of a tax increase of any kind in St. Louis County is unacceptable,” he said. “I think we have a responsibility to create and find revenue flows.”
His solutions included ending the zoo and bike trails tax, freeing up $60 million in the budget to reallocate those funds.
Four representatives from the St. Louis Disc Golf Club attended the meeting in Clayton and shared concerns that two disc golf courses at Sioux Passage and Unger Parks were slated for closure.
Former club president Chris Kinsella said the club’s 540 members held monthly tournaments that bring in teams from all over the country to the area’s parks.
“We are a revenue stream for the parks,” he said. “We’ve raised over $10,000 in the last two years and have invested it back into the disc golf courses in the parks.”
After 10 speakers about the parks, Seventh District County Councilman Gregory Quinn (R-Wildwood) said the county has spent a large amount of time time building up the parks system and “vigorously opposed” the closure of any parks.
“My view is that the proposed budget cuts fall disproportionately on the parks system. I’m not in favor of that,” he said. “We owe it to ourselves and our posterity to maintain these parks and save them. I think we can work that out.”
For the first time in recent history, the County Council has formed a special budget committee to work with the executive on the budget. Headed by Fourth District representative Mike O’Mara (D-North County), the committee will hold a public hearing Nov. 15 at 6:30 p.m. at 41. S. Central Avenue in Clayton.
O’Mara announced Tuesday the committee will include former councilman Richard ‘Skip’ Mange as an independent advisor. Mange advocated for a unsuccessful 2004 tax increase to benefit county parks and served four years on the County Council.
“You have my personal commitment that I will do everything possible and I’ve been vocal thus far, to prevent the closure of any parks,” said County Council Chairman Steve Stenger (D-Affton) “We’re going to all work very hard together to come up with solutions to the issues presented.”