St. Louis County parks' audit questions priorities in buying vehicles during budget crunch
An audit of St. Louis County’s parks department questioned, among other things, the wisdom of purchasing vehicles at a time when the agency was experiencing a high-profile budget crunch.
Of particular note in the audit – which was presented to the St. Louis County Council before its Tuesday meeting – was how the department spent about $550,000 on vehicles acquired in 2011 and early 2012. Those include Ford F350 dump trucks, Ford Rangers made in 2011 and 2012 Chevy Impalas.
Some purchases were made even as the department became ensnared in a budget battle, which ultimately resulted in layoffs in the department.
The audit noted a ratio of one vehicle for every 1.6 employees during the winter and one vehicle for every 2.4 employees in the summer. And it went on to suggest that the department “review vehicle replacement practices in light of budget concerns, escalating fuel prices and staff reductions.”
“Our concern with the vehicle inventory was with the purchasing at the end of the year,” said St. Louis County Auditor David Makarewicz in an interview. “That is if we were in a budget crunch that started around Halloween, that the parks department was still taking delivery on vehicles through the end of the year.”
For example, Makarewicz said, the department took delivery on ranger vehicles. At the same time, he said, two rangers were transferred out of the department, while another ranger retired.
“So with a smaller staff of rangers, they were still taking delivery on ranger vehicles,” he said. “We don’t set policy for them. But we brought it to their attention and said 'we’d like to see revisions in your vehicle purchases to minimize the size of the fleet in light of them having less money and laying off people and trying to reduce the size and scope of park operations.'”
The parks department responded in the audit by stating that it reviews "vehicle replacement practices on an ongoing basis and the reductions have been made.”
“Additionally, we have significant staffing increases spring through fall and require additional equipment for that timeframe,” the response stated. “We continue to monitor vehicle mileage and move vehicles as necessary. In order to reduce fuel consumption we have also had rangers increase patrols on foot, bike and horseback.”
St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley defended the policies after the council’s Tuesday meeting. He said that the county needed the vehicles to maintain the county’s large parks system, one of the biggest in the state.
“We buy vehicles every year… and these are vehicles we have to have,” Dooley said. “When we need a plowing machine or something to take care of things, we have to have it. We can’t say the equipment is broken. It needs to be fixed, it needs to be running. They need to do the job.”
He added, “They have a life expectancy. Some go a little bit over their life expectancy. So as a rule of thumb we go by at this point, we change those vehicles out.”
The audit comes months an intense clash between Dooley and members of the County Council. The Democratic chief executive had proposed a budget shutting down half of the county’s parks, a move that sparked a public backlash.
Dooley eventually stood down and amended the budget to keep all of the county’s parks open. The county still ended up laying employees off from the department, as well as cutting back on some maintenance services.
St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley responds to reporter questions about an audit of the county's parks department.
In addition, the audit also pointed out that $129,898.40 worth of proceeds and accrued interest from two bond issues was unspent. That money stemmed from bond issues from 1977 and 1986.
“The question that I posed was why wasn’t this done between 1977 and now?” Makarewicz said. “I never really got an answer.”
Dooley said that the money is being spent now. Asked why the money hadn’t been spent, Dooley said “we don’t spend every dime because we budget everything. We look at what the needs are in the department, what the capital needs are and make a determination going through this process.
“We made a determination not to spend all of our money,” he continued. “That could have been [money] in one of our accounts that we chose not to spend. But to say that we didn’t know it was there was an untrue statement. Just because we didn’t spend it, doesn’t mean we didn’t know it was there.”
Dooley also said that $130,000 “for the parks department of a budget of $24 to $26 million – that’s not a great deal of money.”
“So that’s not going to change the priorities of the department,” he said. “So to talk about [$130,000] as some big number – it simply isn’t. And to say that we were not aware that it wasn’t in there is simply not a true statement.”
The audit also raised other issues, including the wisdom of installing Wi-Fi installations throughout county parks. It also raised concerns that a camera-based security system at the North County Recreation Center was being underused.