November 3, 2011

Where Will Nannies And Chimney Sweeps Sing Songs And Fly Kites If St. Louis County Closes Parks?

Saint Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley has proposed cuts to the county park system in response to budget shortfalls. Park advocates are outraged:

“I don’t think it’s up to those guys to make that decision,” said Walter Crawford, executive director of the World Bird Sanctuary, which borders Lone Elk Park. “That park belongs to you and me.”

If it is not up to county officials to determine how to raise and spend tax dollars, whose job is it? Not surprisingly, the hipster urbanists are all a-twitter:

Parks represent a community’s shared aspirations and values. Our St. Louis County Park system is a national treasure.

No, it isn’t. It is a wonderful local park system, but “national treasure” is a fair bit of hyperbole.

I think the real opportunity is for cities to take over some of the parks that are within their borders. Many of the parks in question were county parks before these cities, such as Wildwood, incorporated. County government officials are correct to propose changing that model now. Residents in the newly-formed cities gain the benefits of the local park without the marginal tax burden. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch explains further:

The possible transfers: Lone Elk Park to the Missouri Department of Conservation; Greensfelder to the city of Wildwood; George Winter to Fenton; and Bon Oak to Dellwood.

Officials said that they had not yet contacted the state or municipalities to discuss that prospect.

However, Wildwood Mayor Tim Woerther said on Tuesday that he would be open to the idea of taking over the 1,734-acre Greensfelder.

“We would certainly be receptive,” he said. “But obviously, the devil is in the details.”

I commend Mayor Woerther for his openness to the idea. I would add Tilles Park in Ladue to the list; perhaps the cities of Ladue, Brentwood, and Rock Hill could take over the park in a cost-sharing arrangement. (Tilles is in Ladue, but on the border of Brentwood and Rock Hill, and residents of all three cities use the park extensively.)

Another possibility for some of these parks is to deed them to neighboring subdivisions as common ground. This is an option for the smaller, neighborhood parks on the list, such as Mathilda-Welmering. Maybe they would be well-maintained in that situation and maybe they wouldn’t, but the choice, and cost, would be up to the local residents who use the park. 

And, not surprisingly to regular readers, I think privatization should be considered for some of these parks. The Reason Foundation has covered the issue of park privatization at length. The conservancy model of non-profit public-private partnerships operating a park has been used successfully in some Saint Louis city parks, such as Tower Grove Park. Private supporters also have played a role in the success of some destination parks in the area, including Forest Park and Faust Park. (Nextstl.com has good detail on this in its story.)

The privatization model will, in my opinion, work better for destination parks. But, I think Lone Elk is such a destination park, and because it is one of the parks without a deed restriction on its sale, I hope the county gives that option strong consideration if a private operator can be found to manage it.

I don’t agree with every idea that the county executive proposes here, but I don’t think he deserves the criticism from all sides that he is receiving. Some of these cuts are tough choices that have to be made. I believe that the government is too large and too costly at every level. So, my axiom to that rule is that I don’t criticize elected officials — of either party — when they propose budget cuts, especially in tough economic times. (I think the closest I came to breaking that principle was in defense of Parents As Teachers. But, I only argued against its elimination; I supported cutting its budget.)  

If cities can take control of some of these parks, if privatization (including non-profit control) can be applied to the facilities where it may be best suited, if the more obvious cuts and changes can be applied (like closing minimally-used pools and expensive community centers), then I believe these changes can be implemented and, in the end, most St. Louisans would barely notice.

A project of the


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