Bivins not encouraged about his tax-decrease bill after hearing

Oakville representative’s previous bill referred to Transportation Committee

By MIKE ANTHONY

A state representative from Oakville is not encouraged about his legislation that would allow the Mehlville Fire Protection District to place a tax-rate decrease measure before voters after a committee hearing last week in Jefferson City.

House Bill 2277, introduced by Rep. Walt Bivins, R-Oakville, would give the Mehlville Fire Protection District’s Board of Directors the legal authority to place a tax-rate decrease measure before voters.

But after a March 26 hearing before the Local Government Committee of the Missouri House, Bivins is not optimistic about the future of his legislation. Besides Bivins, former Republican Rep. Catherine Enz of south county testified in favor of the bill. Enz testified in support of Bivins’ legislation both as a private citizen and as a lobbyist for the Mehlville Fire Protection District.

But Bivins said he was discouraged from the beginning of the hearing.

“Well, I was not encouraged the way the hearing went. When I walked in and saw the members of that committee that were in attendance, I frankly leaned over to Cathy and told her that this wasn’t going to go well,” he said. “The folks that I saw who were in attendance — there were only enough there to make up a quorum — a good many of the members were absent.

“They had a lot of things going on that day. But I had a lot of unfriendly questions. I guess that might be the best way to put it …”

Three people testified against his legislation, according to Bivins, including Mark Woolbright, legislative director of the Missouri State Council of Fire Fighters.

Among their concerns were that a fire district board of directors already has the authority to lower that district’s tax rate and that the proposal was special legislation and unconstitutional.

“… At the end of my testimony — or end of the hearing — I reminded the members there that we had any number of bills where we identified an area very specifically only by geographic definitions. So in my mind, if we can do it for other bills, then we certainly ought to be able to do it for this one,” Bivins said.

“The other thing that I tried to explain to the committee members, and I don’t think they wanted to understand, is that there is a difference between the tax levy and the tax ceiling. But again, they kept going back to the thought: ‘Well, the board can already lower the tax levy. We don’t need to do this.’ So from that perspective, I, quite frankly, wasn’t encouraged that my bill was going to go anywhere.”

In January 2007, Mehlville Fire Protection District board Chairman Aaron Hilmer and Treasurer Bonnie Stegman voted to place Proposition TD, or Tax Decrease, on the April 3, 2007, ballot. Then-Secretary Dan Ottoline participated in the meeting by telephone and was unable to vote under the provisions of the Missouri Open Meetings and Records Law.

The ballot language for Proposition TD stated, “Shall the voters of the Mehlville Fire Protection District decrease the general tax levy available to the district by 45 cents per $100 of assessed valuation? This proposition is based upon the 2006 assessed valuation for the district and equates to a total tax reduction of approximately $9.75 million per year. The foregoing shall not be subject to any tax-rate reduction rollback.”

Concord resident Dennis Skelton filed a lawsuit Feb. 7, 2007, seeking the removal of the tax-rate-decrease measure from the ballot. Skelton, who ran as a write-in candidate for the fire district Board of Directors in April 2007, was defeated by Ed Ryan, who now serves as board secretary.

In a ruling issued Feb. 9, 2007, Judge James R. Hartenbach ordered the Board of Election Commissioners to remove Proposition TD from the April 3, 2007, ballot.

This is Bivins’ second attempt this session at introducing legislation that would allow a fire protection district board to place a tax-rate decrease measure before voters. His first proposal, House Bill 1730, was referred to the Transportation Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Neal C. St. Onge, R-Ellisville.

“The first bill that I filed would have had statewide effect and allowed any fire district throughout the state to take to the voters a ballot measure to lower the tax ceiling,” Bivins said. “… The Transportation (Committee) chairman let me know in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t going to have a hearing on that bill.”

Bivins said he was disappointed with the reception HB 2277 received from the Local Government Committee last week.

“And the only way I could do anything is if there is a bill that comes forward on the floor of the House and I can attach an amendment to that. After the results of that hearing that we had Wednesday, though, I’m not even encouraged about the ability to do that, but I can give it a shot,” he said.

“… The other thing that I tried to explain to the committee is in our state laws, if you go through all the statutes, it gives any number of taxing districts, whether they’re aldermen or school boards or you name it, it always gives them the authority to increase taxes, but there’s no authority to take to the voters an opportunity to decrease taxes. But nowhere in the state statutes does it allow you to do that.”