Attorney general won’t pursue legal action over MFPD tax rate

Fire board chairman happy with ‘outstanding outcome’

By MIKE ANTHONY

The Missouri Attorney General’s Office will not pursue legal action to prohibit the Mehlville Fire Protection District from levying the fiscal 2010 tax rate approved by the district’s Board of Directors, according to board Chairman Aaron Hilmer.

Missouri Auditor Susan Montee’s Office last month referred the fire district to Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster’s Office, contending the tax rate approved by the district’s Board of Directors was higher than permitted under state law.

In an Oct. 27 letter to Administrative Chief Fire Officer Tim White, Ronald Holliger, general counsel for the Attorney General’s Office, wrote, “… It appears that the levy you seek to impose is in violation of the certified rate provided by law … It is our intention to file a petition for an injunction barring your attempt to levy a higher-than-authorized rate within 15 days of this letter. If you voluntarily come into compliance, we will not seek the assessment of costs against the district.”

After the fire district received the letter, Hilmer told the Call he looked forward to meeting with representatives of the Attorney General’s Office and was optimistic the situation would be resolved in the district’s favor. Hilmer and Mathew Hoffman, the fire district’s legal counsel, met last week in Jefferson City with representatives of the Attorney General’s Office, including Holliger and Chief of Staff Matthew Dameron.

During the brief meeting on Nov. 17, Hilmer and Hoffman were informed the Attorney General’s Office had no plans to pursue any legal action against the district.

Hilmer told the Call he expected to receive a formal letter from the Attorney General’s Office regarding its decision sometime after Thanksgiving. He also noted the county collector of revenue is levying the tax rate approved by the Board of Directors.

“… It was an outstanding outcome,” the board chairman said. “The Attorney General’s Office was excellent to deal with. I’d like to say thank you very much to the Attorney General’s Office, notably their chief of staff and their general counsel for taking the time to review the relevant material. I’d also like to thank Sen. Jim Lembke, Rep. Mike Leara and Rep. Walt Bivins, all who contacted us wanting to help bring this farce to a close.”

The Board of Directors voted Aug. 27 to set the fire district’s tax rate at 59.3 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, 3 cents more than the previous year’s tax rate of 56.3 cents. Board members voted to roll up the tax rate to collect the same amount of revenue as the previous year under the provisions of the Hancock Amendment.

But the State Auditor’s Office would not certify the fire district’s tax rate, contending that because the Board of Directors voted in August 2008 to levy a tax rate less than the district’s tax-rate ceiling of $1.052, Mehlville’s ceiling was reduced to 56.3 cents under the provisions of Senate Bill 711. Montee’s office further contended Mehlville’s tax-rate ceiling was 16.3 cents because of voter approval in April of two measures reducing the district’s tax-rate ceiling by an additional 40 cents.

Allison Bruns, public affairs coordinator for the Missouri Auditor’s Office, told the Call earlier this month the board-approved tax rate of 59.3 cents was higher than permitted.

“They are above the taxing rate that’s allowed,” she said, citing Senate Bill 711. “It changed what your ceiling could be and because they took a voluntary reduction and then the voters passed an additional reduction, what that would create is the (tax) rate last year is now the ceiling under Senate Bill 711.”

But in correspondence to both the State Auditor’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office, Hoffman wrote the ballot language for the two tax-rate-ceiling-reduction measures — Proposition 1 and Proposition 2 — specifically stated they were not subject to any tax-rate-reduction rollback.

Proposition 1 asked whether the district’s general-fund tax-rate ceiling should be permanently reduced by 36 cents per $100 of assessed valuation while Proposition 2 asked whether the district’s pension-fund tax-rate ceiling would be permanently reduced by 4 cents per $100.

Both measures were overwhelmingly approved by voters in April.

In a Nov. 4 letter to the Attorney General’s Office, Hoffman wrote, “… It is the position of the district that the tax-rate ceiling available is higher than the tax-rate ceiling determined by the Office of the Missouri Auditor. Further, both Proposition 1 and Proposition 2, which were approved by the voters of the district, state the following: ‘This proposition is based upon the 2008 assessed valuation of the district. The foregoing shall not be subject to any tax-rate-reduction rollback.”’

Regarding the Nov. 17 meeting, Hilmer said, “Quite honestly, the thing that we really pointed to the most was the ballot language … Two of the three sentences addressed this very issue that we were very cognizant of. This very issue arose in Senate Bill 711, ironically the same Senate bill that gave us the power to put this on the ballot. Two of the three sentences ad-dressed this very issue and the auditor’s office wouldn’t even acknowledge that they were there.”

Besides the ballot language, Hilmer disputed the state auditor’s interpretation of Senate Bill 711, particularly that the 2008 board-established tax rate became the district’s new tax-rate ceiling.

That provision only comes into play during a reassessment year and 2008 was not a reassessment year, he said.

Therefore, when Mehlville voters considered Proposition 1 and Proposition 2 in April, the district’s tax-rate ceiling was $1.052. Voter approval of those measures reduced the ceiling to 65.2 cents.

But that tax-rate ceiling dropped to 59.3 cents when the board set that amount as its fiscal 2010 tax rate this year — a reassessment year.

However, Senate Bill 711 also states that during a non-reassessment year such as next year, a taxing entity can levy the maximum ceiling — in this case up to 65.2 cents — provided it conducts a public hearing and adopts “an ordinance, resolution or policy statement justifying its action prior to setting and certifying its tax rate.”

The board chairman also said he was disappointed with the treatment the district received from the auditor’s office.

“I’d like to contrast the AG’s professionalism to the state auditor’s behavior and there is no comparison. The State Auditor’s Office never even gave us the chance to sit down with them to discuss this,” Hilmer said. “They could only give us a terse phone conversation in which they readily admitted they did not understand our ballot language nor have they ever applied a voter-approved tax-rate decrease to their formula.

“And for them to go from that to asking the AG’s Office for possible injunctive relief, it’s outrageous. It shows that the State Auditor’s Office is either politically motivated or incompetent or probably both. I think the State Auditor’s Office needs to be audited for wasting tax dollars on this failed circus stunt.”