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Voters may consider eighth-cent sales tax that would revamp St. Louis County's park system

Cliff Cave, Bee Tree, Clydesdale and Jefferson Barracks parks in south county are just some of the countywide parks that could undergo significant improvements and enhancements if voters approve an eighth-of-a-cent sales tax.

All six county councilmen introduced legislation last week that would allow voters to decide in April whether they support a one-eighth-cent sales tax that could revamp the St. Louis County parks system.

If voters approve the tax, the Department of Parks and Recreation no longer would draw money from the county's general fund — allowing about $9 million to flow back to other county services every year. Including the general fund and other sources of revenue, the parks budget for 2004 sits at $28,245,800, which is not enough to support parks operations and also initiate capital improvements, according to county officials.

"Operationally, we need assistance," Parks and Recreation Department Director Genie Zakrzewski told the Call.

"I would say, having gone through, the countywide budget process, this tax is very much needed."

If approved, the sales tax would become effective Oct. 1. The tax would add 1.25 cents to every $10 purchase within St. Louis County, 12.6 cents to every $100 purchase and $1.25 to every $1,000 purchase.

Parks department estimates reveal that the tax could generate at least $16.5 million annually — which could provide a potential $7.5 million surplus the department contends it could use to enhance park amenities and services, while also support day-to-day operations.

Sustaining existing services would take up 60 percent of the revenue generated from the sales tax, while officials would use 40 percent of the funds to implement park enhancements, according to a department news release.

"The current parks property tax is insufficient to support all of the parks operations and maintenance, which in turn requires a subsidy from the general fund," Councilman Kurt Odenwald, R-Shrewsbury stated in the release. "This diverts money away from essential county services such as police and justice services. Without additional revenues, we cannot continue to fund the parks at the current level without taking needed dollars away from other vital county services."

The department has been formulating its master plan based on surveys it conducted in 2000, Zakrzewski said, to find out what county residents want from their parks — improved park facilities and new and extended trail systems.

"Now it's time to look through the park system and think about what the future is going to be and when we look at the future and we have aging assets, we need to replace them and enhance them," she added.

With the extra money gained from the eighth-cent sales tax, the county plans to expand facilities at almost half of the county's 71 parks, according to improvements listed on a department press release, with about 14 of those parks located in south county.

The department plans to add a multi-use trail, a natural meadow and a playground to Ohlendorf Park. Improvements at the Kennedy Recreation Complex in Kennedy Park could include a renovated ice arena, an outdoor aquatics center and more trails.

The spring and rock garden could be restored at Sylvan Springs Park with the addition of a youth skateboard area and a "state-of-the-art" aquatics center is planned for the Affton White-Rodgers Community Center. Improvements also are planned for Laumeier Sculpture, Buder, Black Forest, Bohrer, Lemay, Mathilda-Welmering, Simpson and Suson parks.

Many improvements would begin in 2005 and run through 2007, according to the department.

"After our operational budget would be balanced, we would go toward enhancing capital projects," Zakrzewski said, noting that if voters reject the sales tax, "They (enhancements) would be deferred until we could figure out how we can fund them. We currently are working our way through capital repairs and replacements, but if this doesn't pass, operationally, we will continue with the maintenance ... There is a need to stabilize current operating issues and make sure we are covering our day-to-day responsibilities."

Zakrzewski is comfortable with $9 million of the parks budget leaving the general fund and depending on sales tax revenue, she told the Call.

"In my mind and in looking at the budget, it seems to be a positive direction to go in," she said. "Obviously there are budgetary shortfalls, other than in my own area. I know things are tight."

As the department attempts to achieve balance by maintaining and adding to its parks system, the county needs to look at alternate funding sources, she said.

Councilman John Campisi, R-south county, whose name is listed as one of the sponsors of the legislation, said the bill is just a mechanism to get the special sales-tax question on the April ballot and will let the people decide whether it is necessary.

"I think the parks department does need an infusion of money to do what they say they want to do — a lot of good things south county people can enjoy if they have enough funds," Campisi said. "Whether people want to do that at this time, that's something south county people will have to decide. If not, parks will have to postpone the projects."

Final consideration of the bill is scheduled for the council's Jan. 27 meeting.

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