CLAYTON (KMOX) – St. Louis County’s parks department spent a half-million dollars on new cars and trucks, while people were being laid off and parks were threatened with closure, according to a new internal audit.
$315,000 of that came after County Executive Charlie Dooley’s dire warnings last year of a fiscal crisis, at which time he requested a property tax increase and threatened to shutter or sell half of the county’s parks.
“Those that are left still have a job to do, and we’re going to do it,” Dooley said, defending the deals, which also included dump trucks and an A.T.V. Many vehicles being replaced dated back to the 1990s.
Council chairman Mike O’Mara, a Democrat like Dooley, was not happy. He wondered how those now unemployed must feel.
“We probably could have held off on the purchases until a later time, and made some repairs,” he said.
There is one vehicle for every 1.63 full-time employees in the parks department. It’s one for every 2.42 people when seasonal and part-timer workers are included.
The review, completed by County Auditor David Makarewicz at the request of the County Council, also blew dust off of $130,000 in two parks department funds, sitting unused, dating from bond issuances in 1977 and 1986. They both must be used for capital expenditures.
(Last month, KMOX News also reported on $580,231, discovered in a dormant county health department fund from the mid-1980s.)
“That’s very concerning to us, especially after we had to lay-off twenty employees,” O’Mara said.
While Tom Ott, the newly appointed parks director on the job for two weeks, said he had just become aware of the accounts, Dooley, Ott’s boss, said the money was not news to him.
“Your question was, were we aware that this money actually existed? Yes we were,” Dooley said, after Tuesday night’s County Council meeting. “It is being spent now.”
He was contradicted earlier in the day by a top aide.
County Chief Operating Officer Garry Earls, during an afternoon hearing on the audit report, said that the funds would likely be spent next year, possibly on a parking lot re-paving at Creve Coeur Lake.
Council members briefly questioned why, if there is indeed a budget crunch, the money wouldn’t be used right away to alleviate the pressure. No consensus was reached.
“If we don’t start doing something, the future is bleak,” Dooley said on November 15, 2011, warning about a budget short-fall that ranged from five to ten-million dollars, or higher, depending on the day.
He requested the tax hike and when council members refused, he then threatened to close the parks, along with the west county satellite office and to cut back on snow removal services.
None of those moves were made – or, seemingly, even necessary. KMOX News first reported Monday that St. Louis County actually posted a $2.4 million surplus last year. The projected, dire deficit did not materialize.
It was a “manufactured crisis,” council member Steve Stenger, a Democrat, now says. At the time, Stenger said he didn’t believe the County Executive’s claims and got into a public war of words with him. On Monday, Stenger alleged that Dooley issued the warnings “to prove a point, rather than for legitimate reasons.”
“It would be impossible to legitimately believe that we would be in a $26 million deficit and wind up in a $2.4 million dollar net operating surplus. It’s an impossibility that anybody believed that.”
Dooley, on last year’s numbers: “We’re talking about a $500 million budget and you got a 2 and a half million dollar surplus? That’s cutting it pretty short.”
In a compromise reached for this year’s budget, the parks department lost big. Council members agreed to lay-offs and requested the audit, but said they felt blindsided when Dooley swung his axe before the results of the inquiry were back.
Besides the vehicle purchases and the two bank accounts, the audit also noted an accounting irregularity. $345,000 was shown on records as being spent twice on the same two projects.
Dooley took issue with that portrayal.
“Nothing was counted twice,” he said. “But it was listed as being counted twice,” a KMOX reporter interjected. Dooley replied: “In the budget, it was in there one time. It might be in the capital expenditures twice, but it was in the budget one time.”
Additionally, the auditor questioned Wi-Fi networks which were rolled out into some county parks. A cost was not mentioned, but the report does say that the county I.T. department was not consulted.
Auditor Makarewicz also wrote that a high-quality security camera system had been installed at the North County Recreation Complex, but was not being fully utilized.
A budget committee was formed by the County Council, for the first time, last year. It will begin work on next year’s budget this summer, which is unusually early.
Republican council member Colleen Wasinger said she would approach the administration’s agenda with a dose of skepticism.
“We need to take a good, hard look at what’s being sent down, and we really need to look and ask some tough questions about what’s being presented to us,” she said.
Dooley responds, “We’re the best run county in this state.”