April Tax Increase Will Save County Parks, Committee Says
A committee of parks supporters, including a Town and Country alderman, studied the St. Louis County Parks system and endorsed a tax increase proposal. The measure must pass through the county council, where Councilman Steve Stenger said there is not a fu
A sales tax increase that might be on the ballot in April would free St. Louis County parks from further cuts or closures.
That’s according to a committee of parks supporters who filed an interim report with county officials in July. The Green Ribbon Committee, which is comprised of former and current parks directors, city officials and trail agencies, was tasked with analyzing the county parks system after a tumultuous year of layoffs and threats to close parks.
Councilman Steve Stenger, who represents South County, said the committee was a “rubber stamp operation” for County Executive Charlie Dooley to get a tax increase passed in St. Louis County. Stenger has been a vocal opponent of Dooley, and has hinted at running for county executive in 2014.
Skip Mange, a current Town and Country alderman and former county councilman who is chairing the parks committee, rejects Stenger’s assertion. Dooley selected some of the committee’s members, but others were invited to join by Mange, he said.
“(Stenger is) absolutely wrong,” Mange said. “I have a knowledge in the parks, I have experience in the county council dealing with the budget and I understand that stuff. But these are strong parks people that understand the need for the parks.”
Mange's knowledge of the parks comes from co-chairing a tax initiative with Dooley for the parks system that voters rejected in 2004. Mange is also currently heading up a committee in Town and Country that is studying parking at the city's Longview Farm Park and recommending adding additonal parking spaces to accomodate cars there.
Mange asked the county council to participate by joining or nominating members to the committee.
“They were invited to participate, they were asked more than once, and they chose not to give us anyone,” Mange said.
Stenger said he couldn’t speak for the entire council, but said he didn’t participate because it would have legitimized the committee.
“The county council is the entity that has been chosen by the voters to either approve or disapprove the budget,” he said. “It sends a pretty clear message when everyone had the opportunity to participate and no one does.”
The committee toured all parks, held 11 meetings and concluded that if the residents of St. Louis County want to maintain a quality parks system, the department needs revenue. That revenue can come from the county's existing funds or a tax increase.
At the direction of the county executive, the parks department won't receive any money from the county's general fund, a 30-year constant.
With less revenue coming in, acting parks director Tom Ott and his staff developed a business plan, but is still $500,000 short.
The county reported an ending balance of $43.3 million in the general fund and $7.1 million in the parks fund at the close of 2011.
With those numbers coming from the county budget office, Stenger calls the $500,000 shortfall a lie.
“Let’s say it wasn’t a lie, and you’re short $500,000. You have a surplus of $3.2 million last year and you have a fund balance of $43.3 million. You’re going to squabble over $500,000?
“I’m not going to go along with zero funding from the general fund to our parks system. I don’t want to speak for the rest of the council, but I won’t support that,” he said.
Mange said the voters—not the county council—should decide if they want to fund the parks through a ballot measure in April.
The legislation proposes a 3/16 of a cent increase in sales tax for improving parks and the Arch grounds.
Mange estimated county parks would receive about $6 million a year. He said the committee would recommend using between $2 and $3 million to buy bonds for major improvements to the North County and Kennedy Recreation Complexes. Another $3 million should go into operational funds.
“I think this parks system could operate very nicely with this $6 million. It would give us a revenue stream to bond out some major projects and maintain and operate our parks system,” Mange said. “It is sufficient money for years to come.”
The measure, called the Safe and Accessible Arch and Public Parks Initiative, passed through the Missouri House and Senate in the spring. Gov. Jay Nixon approved it in July, and the bill will become law on Aug. 28.
The proposal must be approved by St. Louis alderman, and St. Louis and St. Charles county councils before it goes on the ballot in April 2013.
Stenger said he would want voters to decide, but does not support the measure as a way of funding parks.
“We have everything we need to fund our parks system; it would be complete disinformation to tell the people that we need that tax to save our parks,” he said.
If passed, 30 percent of the tax revenue would be used to improve the Arch grounds. The rest would go to city and county parks and trail agencies. The bill said the tax would generate up to $38.5 million each year.
Both Dooley and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay support putting the tax increase on the ballot, while St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann opposes it.