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Parks Saved, Layoffs Remain in St. Louis County Budget Compromise

Michael Calhoun
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St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and councilmen Steve Stenger and Mike O'Mara during a council meeting on Tuesday, December 6th, 2011. (KMOX/Michael Calhoun)

St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and councilmen Steve Stenger and Mike O’Mara during a council meeting on Tuesday, December 6th, 2011. (KMOX/Michael Calhoun)

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CLAYTON (KMOX) – A cease-fire in the face-off surrounding St. Louis County’s budget deficit.

County Executive Charlie Dooley announced at the start of Tuesday night’s County Council meeting that he’s withdrawing his plan to close half of the County’s parks. A majority of council members had expressed opposition to the idea and dozens of taxpayers voiced their outrage during a series of budget hearings.

The parks are safe, but 40 to 50 employees will be laid off. The exact number and which specific employees is still being determined, but Dooley said pink slips would likely go out in January.

“These individuals come to work every single day and do what’s asked of them, but at the same time we have to make a cut,” Dooley said. “It’s never an easy thing to tell someone that they don’t have a job.”

Democratic councilwoman Kathleen Burkett was pleased with the compromise, but expressed a similar regret.

“I’m sorry to see there will be lay-offs. That’s not something any of us like to do,” she remarked during the meeting.

Listen to the budget agreement announcement:

A satellite office in west county will also remain open and Dooley promises that snow plows will continue to patrol unincorporated St. Louis County streets during winter weather. He had sought $10 million in budget savings for a deficit he claimed was more than $20 million deep, but many council members were skeptical of those numbers.

Dooley’s about-face, in the wake of strong council opposition, mirrors the fate of his proposed property tax increase last September. He gave up after it became clear it didn’t have the votes for passage.

“This is not a defeat, this is a success,” he said when asked about the political implications of this compromise.

And it’s a problem which could pop up again next winter. This agreement is billed as a band aid.

“We’ve given ourselves 12 months to work through this process for a long-term fix,” Dooley said. “But it is a situation we can address together. And I’m just thankful that we can get together and work together as a team.”

While the parks will remain open, many will do so with reduced hours and services. Dooley doesn’t rule out the possibility of transferring some to local municipalities or the state of Missouri.

Republican councilman Greg Quinn, during the meeting, pointed out the bi-partisan nature of the agreement, calling it an “amicable conclusion.”

“It’s not like Congress. We were able to put this together,” Quinn said.

The compliments come after a week of jabs between Dooley and council Chair Steve Stenger.

Both men are Democrats, though Stenger led the charge against Dooley’s parks proposal. The conversation was cordial for several weeks, until Dooley publicly questioned Stenger’s budget-balancing experience. Stenger, then, pointed out the Executive’s lack of a college degree while responding to a question from KMOX talk show host Mark Reardon. That led to a vicious on-air exchange between Reardon and Dooley’s senior policy advisor, just hours before the budget accord was struck.

The two men, Executive and Chair, shook hands before Tuesday’s meeting.

“It was a hot debate, and it was a hot debate because it was over such an important issue,” Stenger said. “I sure hope that the future holds more getting along than fighting.”

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