By passing the bill before the end of the year, the board triggered a $25 million anonymous donation to the non-profit organization Forest Park Forever, which also received $30 million of the bond money to maintain and improve the city's flagship park. The group recently initiated a $100 million fundraising campaign to supplement the bond money. The anonymous philanthropist has conveyed that the massive donation is predicated on the bonds proposal passing before January 1, 2012.
The prospect of losing out on this $25 million instilled a sense of urgency among city leaders over the past few weeks, as next Friday is the last scheduled Board of Alderman meeting of the year.
While the Board Bills #189 and 190 passed with more than two-thirds support, a couple of aldermen, as well as City Comptroller Darlene Green have expressed concerns over the proposal.
"Is this the best thing to borrow money for?" said 11th Ward Alderman Thomas Villa, who argued that, given the fragility of the economy, this isn't the best time to be taking on more debt, a point that Green has also made.
Twenty-first Ward Alderman Antonio French, once a co-sponsor of the bills, explained that he removed his name because he is worried that the city is rushing it through, and not giving the proposal sufficient forethought. He stressed the risk that the city wouldn't properly ration the money, which the bill essentially consolidates from over the next 25 years into a lump sum.
For the last three years, $1.1 million of the $1.7 million parks allotment in the city budget has been siphoned to cover capital improvements, whose fund was diminished with the economic downturn. The bills make this action no longer possible. A problem with this parks proposal, French argued, is that the city hasn't yet figured out how to fill the $1.1 million hole that has been left.
Supporters of the bill countered this position from every angle. Eighth Ward Alderman Stephen Conway said that a $1.1 million hole is trivial considering the city's total budget is $450 million.
Thirteenth Ward Alderman Fred Wessels, who is running for city treasurer, drew some chuckles after suggesting, "I know where we can get it. We can get it from the parking meter fund." The parking meter fund is controlled by the treasurer's office. Of the $120 million the fund brought in over the last decade, he noted, only around $3.5 million has gone into the city's general fund. Much of the rest has gone to building parking garages.
Twentieth Ward Alderman Craig Schmid argued that worries over the $1.1 million hole are moot, because that money is supposed to be going to parks in the first place. The parks fund is specifically supported by a sales tax for which St. Louis residents voted in 2000. This proposal, he declared, returns the money to its proper, tax-payer-selected home.