Bipartisan group of lawmakers opposes sales-tax bill for ambulance, fire districts

Leara touts MFPD as ‘model for efficiency in fire districts.’


State legislation that would give St. Louis County ambulance and fire protection districts the authority to ask voters to pay a sales tax recently drew criticism from a bipartisan group of area lawmakers.

The group joined the St. Louis County Municipal League last week in announcing its opposition to Senate Bill 826, which is sponsored by Sen. John Griesheimer, R-Washington.

Griesheimer’s bill would allow county ambulance and fire districts with assessed valuations of less than $2.5 billion to petition voters for a sales tax of up to a half-cent for operations.

In exchange, the districts annually would reduce their property tax rates to an amount that produces half the revenue generated from the new sales tax the previous year. The bill was up for final consideration in the state Senate at press time Monday.

St. Louis County is one of five in Missouri in which ambulance and fire protection districts cannot levy sales taxes under state law.

Proponents believe a sales tax would help districts grappling with the loss of revenue because of decreased property values.

But lawmakers and the municipal league said last week that if there’s a need for individual ambulance and fire districts to levy a sales tax, they haven’t seen it.

They contend a district sales tax could hurt a nearby municipality if the two taxing entities share retailers.

They also believe a sales tax would worsen an existing salary gap between city firefighters and district firefighters, citing a 2006 state auditor’s report.

Sen. Joan Bray, D-University City, said she wanted to stop the bill until the municipal league could gather more information on county districts’ finances and bring “interested parties” together. When the time comes to solve the problem, she said, any decisions should be local.

“I’m not comfortable with Jefferson City making a decision that greatly affects our communities back home,” Bray said, noting the recent voter-approved 0.1-percent countywide sales tax for emergency communications was an example of the county properly fixing its own public safety problem.

“The issues of fire protection between fire districts and fire departments have been simmering for a long time now,” she added. “There’s a lot of issues, and I think as a county we need to step up and figure it out.”

Kurt Becker, a vice president for Local 2665 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, contends the pay disparity between municipal and district firefighters exists because city fire departments typically pump more funds into their administrative staff than their firefighters.

While some county fire districts have been able to do more with less money, others — particularly in north county — are “really challenged” to continue offering basic services with declining revenue and no way to generate additional funding, Becker said.

He added that his organization wants to create a “level playing field” throughout the county for both city fire departments and fire districts.

The IAFF, Becker said, supports legislation that gives voters the ability to choose how they want to pay for fire protection.

However, area Republican lawmakers say they won’t support any bill that provides for potential tax increases.

Instead, they believe fire districts should continue to find ways to become more efficient.

“The answer isn’t always more revenue,” said Sen. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay. “Sometimes, the answer is less spending.”

And Rep. John Diehl, R-Town and Country, contends the districts advocating for the passage of SB 826 aren’t necessarily the ones with financial problems.

“Some of the districts pushing this are some of the wealthiest in the state,” he said. “That money simply is not needed by those districts. Or if it is needed, it has not been demonstrated why it’s needed.”

Rep. Mike Leara, R-Concord, said he has been fighting against sales taxing authority for ambulance and fire districts since last year.

When similar legislation was drafted at that time, Leara said he received a resolution unanimously signed by the Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors opposing the measure.

As the largest fire district in the county and the “model for efficiency in fire districts in this state,” Leara said the MFPD’s viewpoint “should be considered when this type of legislation comes forward.”

“This was wrong from the beginning,” Leara said of SB 826. “The current system works fine.”

MFPD board Chairman Aaron Hilmer said the board remains opposed to the legislation. He said the $2.5 billion maximum assessed valuation provision in SB 826 was an amendment included “specifically for Mehlville … to protect the residents of south county” from a district sales tax.

“What’s so onerous about this is that you see the Senate cutting $500 million from state services for next year, and they’re wasting time trying to find another mechanism so fire districts can get a pay increase.

“There’s already a mechanism in place: property-tax increases. They’re trying to do this so it’d be easier to sell to the voters, and we think it’s unnecessary.”