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Closing Parks is Part of National Trend

The County Council's special budget committee meets tonight for the first time to see if the budget can be balanced without closing 23 parks. Wildwood resident offers a simple solution: Ensure park fees are collected.

St. Louis County is not alone.

As a special committee of the St. Louis County Council meets tonight to discuss closing the budget shortfall without , the National Recreation and Parks Association in Washington D.C. said parks departments across the country are seeing cuts—sometimes twice in a year, sometimes by as much as 30 or 40 percent.

Finding funding for parks as public revenue dries up is “probably the hottest issue in public parks and recreation today,” said Rich Dolesh, vice president for conservation and parks for the association. Dolesh, who attended St. Louis University, said “virtually every agency in the county is being tasked with this.”

But even in the national trend of slashing public parks, Dolesh said St. Louis seemed to have a "disproportionate" and "crisis knee-jerk" reaction. 

"This situation is not unknown, but it sounds like the St. Louis County situation immediately falls to some of the most serious budget cuts we’ve heard about," he said. "Y'all really have a situation on your hands."

Crunching the numbers

Closing 23 parks and eliminating 135 jobs from the parks department would cut about $4 million — almost half of the countywide $10 million gap. 

The parks department wanted $26 million for its 2012 budget — $11.5 million from a dedicated tax, $6 million in revenues and the remaining $8.5 from public general revenue funds — but the County Executive’s office said it can “no longer continue” paying so much from the general revenue fund.

With $6 million in earned revenue, St. Louis County earns less than 25 percent of its $26 million budget, lower than the average of 35 percent. Dolesh said it's "clearly a trend" for parks to try to increase revenues to balance cuts, but only one in five U.S. parks earns 40 percent of its operating budget.

Part of St. Louis County's $6 million in park revenues comes from fees for renting athletic fields, meeting rooms, picnic sites and other services. The parks department collects between $2.5 and $2.7 million annually in fees, said Tom Ott, assistant director at the parks department. The most the department received in fees in a year is about $3 million.

The County Council approved the current fee schedule in February 2010. Fees are adjusted every other year, so the parks department is currently reviewing fees for 2012, Ott said.

But the budget needs $4 million to balance. That means parks would have to earn that money on top of their current fees—a total of about $7 million—to take county parks off the closure list.

Will the parks department more-than-double their fees for next year? Probably not, Ott said. 

“We don’t want to price ourselves out of the market,” Ott said. “I think that could possibly upset the public, as well."

Residents react, including Wildwoodians

University City resident Michelle Hayes, who supports a tax increase to help save the parks, said huge fee increases could be cost-prohibitive for county residents and decrease demand for parks services.

“We might increase the fee but not make any more money if people stop using (parks),” she said.

Donna Bochert, of , said she sees a simpler solution: Answer the phone. She’s rented pavilions for parties three times in the last 10 years, and finding someone in the parks department to take her money was so difficult, “I almost just gave up,” she said.

Bochert first tried to rent a space for a company party in , but she spent so much time tracking down a parks employee that the company eventually changed venues. A few years later, she held her son’s graduation party in a pavilion in , a park she enjoys so much she moved next to it. When she couldn’t get through, she drove to an office to make the reservation.

The worst, she said, was in 2008 when her daughter graduated from . Again, no one at the parks department answered the phone, so she made the booking online. She never received the contract or approval the website promised, so she had to warn her daughter that her party still might not have a venue.

"I almost brought my MasterCard statement to show the ranger," Bochert said, laughing. Luckily, that wasn’t necessary. The pavilion had been reserved for her daughter’s big day, despite the lack of notice.

Bochert sees a vicious cycle: If the county doesn’t handle reservations properly, no one will pay to reserve the pavilions. If no one pays to preserve the pavilions, the County will be too cash-strapped to handle reservations properly.

“Unless you collect the fees that are already in place, raising the fees won’t help,” she said. “Someone needs to answer the phone for that to happen.”

Finding other options

Fines from tickets park rangers write for violations won’t help either, Ott said. That money goes to the court system and is "pretty minimal."

Winter Wonderland, the in Tilles Park now in its 26th year, can be a moneymaker for the county, which is expecting 18,000 vehicles this year, according to the 2012 proposed budget.

The county is offering an online coupon for a discounted entrance fee this year. The idea may seem counterintuitive for the cash-strapped group, but Ott said the department designed the coupon to attract visitors during typically “light usage” times.

Last week, to save some parks, including , but the state is already expecting a $500 million shortfall.

"I don’t know where the Governor is going to get extra money for a line item that we currently don’t have in our budget," state Sen. Jim Lembke told KMOX.

Dolesh said many parks departments across the country have found partnerships with public or even private groups to keep parks open. In San Francisco, food trucks took over concessions at public parks, giving private restaurants a new market, residents more options and government a new revenue stream.

"The need to create partnerships is growing," Dolesh said, "but the opportunity is growing too."

California recently passed a law allowing qualified nonprofits to take over park operations in an effort to save some of the 70 of 270 parks slated for closure. While it’s a creative solution, Dolesh said it’s "been a stretch" to find nonprofit groups capable of handling the security, maintenance and operations of a park the way the state did.

The bottom line

Dolesh said he’s "not surprised" to hear residents are 23 local parks from closure.

"This seems to have gone beyond and disproportionately stick it to some of the most beloved resources people have in their community," Dolesh said. "When you look at what parks and recreation does to address challenges in communities, it hits it out of the park—no pun intended!"

But even if parks closures is what it takes for the county to balance the books, Dolesh said he’d want to see thoughtful studies and explanations backing up the county’s choices.

“We’ll move you to the top of our ‘areas of concern’ list,” he said. 

The County Council’s special budget hearing will start at 4 p.m. Nov. 21 in the County Council conference room. The committee will not hear public comments.

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