Parks $500K Budget Shortfall Might Not Exist, County Official Says
A spokesperson for St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley said a projected shortfall in the parks department may not be a reality.
Calls for a tax increase to pay for St. Louis County parks because of a funding shortfall could be sounding the alarm too early.
That’s according to one official in County Executive Charlie Dooley’s office who asserts that a $500,000 budget shortfall might not actually exist.
“That’s a nice number, I don’t know if it’s based on any kind of reality,” spokesperson Mac Scott said. “We’re unaware of that kind of a problem as this point.”
The parks department created a business plan based on 2013 budget projections from the county executive’s office. Those projections included zero funding from the county’s general fund and a $7.4 million decrease in the budget over two years.
The business plan looked at alternate revenue sources and cost-cutting measures, but is still short $500,000, according to a presentation from Tom Ott, acting parks director.
A committee created to help the parks department recommended a tax increase to offset the shortfall and improve facilities within the system.
It’s caused a stir at the county council, where councilman Steve Stenger (D-South County) voiced his frustration over conflicting messages about the budget.
“It demonstrates the difficulties the council has with the administration on dealing with budget issues and the lack of accurate figures,” he said. “You can’t have open discourse if you don’t have an honest source of information.”
Stenger protested the administration’s numbers during the budget process in last year when Dooley said there was a deficit of more than $20 million. His proposed 2012 budget included closing 23 county parks and eliminating more than 100 positions in the county.
Stenger, who was council chairman at the time, created a special budget committee and compromised with the county executive. Another discussion about a supposed budget crisis, he said, is completely unnecessary.
“Because taxpayers need to be protected, it’s worth it to talk about it, but our resources and county government could be much better spent serving the people that we represent if we didn’t have these kinds of issues to deal with,” he said.
While Stenger asserts that parks are the county executive’s lowest priority, Scott said the compromise showed otherwise.
“I think clearly (Dooley has) stated his intention to keep all the parks open and keep them operating as high a level as we can afford to run them and that’s been his position on this,” he said.
Does the county have enough money to fund parks?
The county budget office starts projections for the next year in June and presents a budget to the council in November. The council must approve a balanced budget before the New Year, or allocate day-to-day spending.
The county budget is broken up into four funds: the general fund, highways and transportation, health and parks maintenance. The ending balance of each of those funds is how much cash is on hand after all revenues and expenses are in.
Money from the general fund can be spent on anything or redistributed into the other three funds, said Paul Kreidler, the county budget director.
The county reported $43.3 million as an ending fund balance in the general fund in 2011. The parks fund had $7.1 million and the total in four funds was $85.8 million.
If the parks department is short $500,000, that amount equals to 1.15 percent of the county’s money in the general fund. It’s .58 percent of the total amount of spendable money in the four funds.
While $85.8 million is the spendable amount in each of the funds, there’s more than $127 million cash on hand, according to reports from the county auditor.
The fund grew approximately $4 million from 2010 to 2011 and $13 million from 2009 to 2010. That’s about $17.6 million in two years.
Kreidler said to compare the audit balance to a bank statement for a person with $5,000 in the bank. The person has $5,000 but must pay the mortgage and car payment the next day, so in reality, their balance is lower.
Kreidler subtracts money that’s restricted, such as future bill payments and bond sales, and comes up with money available for the county executive and council to program for the next year. How it’s programmed is at the direction of the executive branch, Kreidler said.
The “free and clear” amount in the general fund is $43.3 million, Kreidler said.
The county needs to have at least $33 million in fund balances to keep its AAA bond rating, the best rating for assessing a government’s ability to meet financial commitments. The $85.8 million is more than double that amount.
“We can borrow money at essentially the same rate as the U.S. government can, not many people can say that,” Scott said.