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More than just the Arch: Proposition P could spruce up regional parks and trails

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 26, 2013 - Proposition P is perhaps getting the most attention for providing local funding for improvements on the Gateway Arch grounds, an unprecedented move aimed at sprucing up the St. Louis landmark.

But money for the Arch is a relatively small part of the sales tax increase, slated for an April 2 vote in St. Louis and St. Louis County.

The lion’s share from the proposed 3/16ths of one-cent sales tax hike would go toward local parks and trails throughout the metro area. Voters in St. Louis County and St. Louis must approve the proposal for it to pass.

Prop P's inclusion of local parks may have been done to make the proposal more palatable to voters.  Tom Irwin, executive director of Civic Progress, an organization of leading business executives, said earlier this year that funding for local parks could be a major incentive for county voters to approve the proposal.

But that doesn’t mean that the supplemental funding won’t provide a tangible benefit to local parks, some of which are in need of much-needed maintenance. Prop P’s approval would also mean that Great Rivers Greenway -- set up in 2000 to create an interconnected system of greenways, parks and trails – would have more money to complete a comprehensive "River Ring" around the area.

And while Prop P won’t fix every park-related malady in the city or county, the proposal could provide a welcome boost to parklands with longstanding maintenance needs.

“I call it the infrastructure – the non-sexy stuff. I hate that phrase. But it’s the stuff that is part of how we put the foundation under our ability to serve our visitors,” said Tower Grove Park director John Karel. “It’s overdue. And this is going to be a shot in the arm.”

Pieces of the pie

While Prop P is commonly described as the “Arch tax,” only 30 percent of the  sales tax increase would go to the Arch grounds.

Roughly 40 percent would go to St. Louis and St. Louis County – as well as county municipality – parks. The remaining 30 percent would go to Great Rivers Greenway.

The tax increase is estimated to generate about $31.4 million. If those numbers hold, then that would mean an additional:

  • $6 million for St. Louis County parks.
  • $4 million for parks within St. Louis County municipalities, which would be distributed through the Municipal Grant Commission of St. Louis County.
  • About $2.5 million for parks in the city of St. Louis.
  • $9.42 million for Great Rivers Greenway.

In essence, the parks proceeds supplements some of the funding from the 1/10th of one-cent sales tax increase passed in 2000. That initiative – known as Proposition C – established Great Rivers Greenway and provided funding for parks in St. Louis, St. Louis County and St. Charles County.

Both St. Louis Parks Director Gary Bess and St. Louis County Parks Director Tom Ott told the Beacon that the additional money will be used for capital improvements in each jurisdiction’s parks system. 

Enabling legislation placing Prop P on the ballot spotlighted how the city’s share would be divided.>

  • Roughly 40 percent – about $1 million – would go to the “major parks capital improvements account" and would pay for infrastructure repairs at Carondelet, Fairground, Forest, O’Fallon, Tower Grove and Willmore parks.
  • The other 60 percent – about $1.5 million – would go into the "neighborhood parks capital improvement account" for the dozens of smaller parks scattered around the city.

The six “major” parks would get a certain percentage of the major parks account based on acreage. Bess said funds from the neighborhood parks account will be divvied up by the aldermanic parks committee.
Bess said the additional $2.5 million would effectively double the amount of money available for capital improvements in city parks. And while he stressed that the money wouldn’t repair everything, he added that it would allow them to fix particularly pressing problems.

“What we will attempt to do with this additional funding is to address the most critical capital needs,” Bess said. “Sidewalks that are broken, water fountains that no longer work, bathrooms that are inoperable. So our first priority will be to address the most critical needs in the parks.

“But needless to say, with nearly $170 million of total capital needs, we’re looking at a large task to improve our parks to a level that we would really like to see them in,” he added.

In the case of Tower Grove Park, Karel said that the additional funds would help fund enhancements that may not appeal to private fundraisers.

“There’s an underlying need that has not been addressed through the good support that we receive from our donors,” Karel said. “We’ve asked and they’ve responded on specific projects, like the restoring of a statue or the renovation of a historic pavilion. We’ve done a lot of that. It’s been fantastic. And it’s really made the park more appealing and more active and more satisfying.”

But, he added, “We have plumbing and utilities. We have paving on paths. We have public bathrooms -- all of which are in various states of need for repair and maintenance and upgrading. … That’s very difficult money to raise, at least it has been for us.”

Dividing St. Louis County’s share

In 2011, St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley submitted a budget that made steep cuts to the county's vast park system. Dooley's budget cuts sparked widespread opposition among residents and members of the County Council, and Dooley eventually stood down from his plan to shut down or sell parks. But the county did lay off staff and curtail services.

While Ott emphasized that the additional money won’t be used to expand staff, he did say the additional $6 million will help the county undertake needed maintenance. That’s necessary, he said, because some parks' facilities pre-date the department’s creation in the 1950s.

Tilles Park, for example, was built in the 1930s – but didn’t become a county park until 1950s. Jefferson Barracks Park, he said, served as an army post in the 1800s.

“We’ve identified projects within the parks system; many of them are to take care of the deferred maintenance items that we haven’t been able to take care of the last five to 10 years,” Ott said. “We’ve got like 41 playgrounds in our system, we’ve got restrooms… that we want to hook up with MSD with some of those and get off of septic tanks. We’ve got roofs, parking lots, HV/AC equipment.”

A second revenue stream for St. Louis County would go to a commission that provides grants to the county’s municipalities. The $4 million would more than double the amount of money available for grants, said St. Louis Municipal League assistant director Stephen Ables.

Unlike St. Louis or St. Louis County, Ables said the grants wouldn’t go toward maintenance-related projects. Instead the money would go for new equipment or a new feature at a park.

For instance, the commission could fund the construction of a new baseball diamond in a park. But the money wouldn’t go toward sprucing up a baseball diamond that’s fallen into disrepair.

Besides money for enhancements, Ables also said the money from the commission could help municipalities create new parks.

“They could use the money to buy land for parks, for example,” said Ables, whose organization is responsible for administering the program. “Some of the real small cities didn’t have enough to realistically do anything. So this gives them a chance.”

Ring around the river

More than half of Prop P's revenue will go to Great Rivers Greenway, mainly because the agency is also administering the funds going to CityArchRiver 2015 projects.

But the other 30 percent, according to GRG executive director Susan Trautman, will be used in part to complete the “River Ring,” an interconnected system of trails encircling the St. Louis region.

“The best part about it is the longer the trail within the greenway, the more communities we connect, then the more people will get out,” Trautman said in January. “They benefit from nature, they benefit from health, they get to know each other and see each other in a different way than they might in your local rec center. That’s where you got the same community there. On the trail, you see every kind of wheel, all walks of life. It really connects us in ways nothing else does.”

Trautman said the five-year capital program consists of “$135 million worth of projects that people really want to see happen in their communities.” But, she added, the agency has only about $55 million over the next five years to use for those projects.

“So we’ve got a huge gap,” she said. “We bonded in 2007. We are an extremely fiscally conservative organization. So we really don’t want to go into further debt. We want to be able to pay as we go. So what this tax will allow us to do is fund these projects and continue to build out the River Ring. We always seek to leverage the public funds with either federal money or hope we’ll have some private involvement in the future.”

St. Charles County also pays into Great Rivers Greenway, but its county council did not vote to place the proposition on the April ballot. Trautman said that doesn’t mean projects will stop there, since St. Charles pay into GRG through the Prop C sales tax passed in 2000.

“We’ve still got projects in St. Charles that will go forward,” she said.

Feast or famine?

To pass, Prop P must find favor with voters in both St. Louis and St. Louis County.

While proponents have collected big fundraising checks to try to ensure Prop P’s passage, the measure does have opposition in both the city and the county. The Beacon reported last week that St. Louis County Republican Party Central Committee is producing anti-Prop P circulars to distribute door-to-door by GOP township committeepeople.

On their website, the St. Louis County GOP wrotethat some of the "tax funds are to be managed by Great Rivers Greenway and the first concern was the lack of accountability the Greenway board had to the community."

"There was also concern about how Great Rivers Greenway became involved with funds being spent on the Arch Grounds," the statement said. "Further, questions were raised about why the county was raising funds for a federal project and there were questions as to whether county parks needed additional funding."

The proposal also had detractors within the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.St. Louis Alderman Antonio French noted earlier this year that the city passed a bond issue aimed at improving the infrastructure of city parks. And said while parks are an important part of city life, he added that they are not a pressing priority to his constituents.

“We’re supposed to have more money from a bond issue that we passed 14 months ago. And then we’re going to have more money from this,” French said. “I would rather that money go toward something else that my constituents actually call me up about every day.”

In an interview earlier this month, French said he felt confident he was speaking “for the vast majority – if not 100 percent – of my constituents” in opposing Proposition P.

“The three things that [the proceeds] are going for are not on any of my constituents top 10 list of priorities --no. 1 being public safety,” French said. “It just shows how out of whack city hall’s priorities are with the people of St. Louis sometimes.”

So what would happen if the initiative fails?

Ables and Bess said that Prop P’s failure would mean the status quo for each respective agency.

“This will only enhance what we do,” Bess said. “Our operating budget will remain the same. Our capital funds that we’ve had since 1993 will remain the same. The loss of this tax would not be catastrophic, but it would be a tremendous asset for us to use in improving the parks.”

But Trautman and Ott said Prop P’s failure would complicate each agency’s priorities. Trautman said if the initiative doesn’t pass, it will mean the “River Ring’s” progress will be significantly slowed.

“It’s a pretty robust and big, bold idea – building out the River Ring,” she added. “Without the tax, we will slow way down in terms of what we can build.”

And Ott said without the additional funds, maintenance at St. Louis County parks will continue to fester.

“We’re back to making some tough decisions on what we’re able to do. We are in tight budget,” Ott said. “Then you’re not going to be doing some of the capital improvements that we are trying to do now. So it’s just going to put us further behind.”

For Karel’s part, the proposition is “a very low impact way to provide a lot of very high-impact benefits.”

“We’ve got unmet needs,” he said. “And somehow or another, if the people of the city and the county and region want to continue to enjoy these wonderful local parks, some way will have to be found to provide the basic infrastructure and maintenance that this would provide. If this doesn’t find favor, then somehow or another there’s going to have to be another source of funds that will take care of them.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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