Bivins seeks legal opinion on tax-decrease proposals

Poll indicates strong support for tax-decrease ballot measures

By MIKE ANTHONY

A state representative from Oakville has requested a legal opinion from Attorney General Jay Nixon about whether “a fire protection district within the state of Missouri may vote to reduce its current tax-rate ceiling.”

Rep. Walt Bivins, R-Oakville, requested the opinion last week from Nixon. Bivins told the Call his request was sparked by a judge’s ruling earlier this year removing a tax-rate-decrease proposal that had been placed on the ballot by the Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors.

In January, board Chairman Aaron Hilmer and Treasurer Bonnie Stegman voted to place Proposition TD, or Tax Decrease, on the April 3 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 seeking the removal of the tax-rate-decrease measure from the ballot.

Skelton’s suit named the county Board of Election Commissioners and the Mehlville Fire Protection District as defendants.

Skelton, who ran as a write-in candidate for the fire district Board of Directors in April, was defeated by Ed Ryan, who now serves as board secretary.

In a ruling issued Feb. 8, Judge James R. Hartenbach ordered the Board of Election Commissioners to remove Proposition TD from the April 3 ballot.

Noting Hartenbach had removed Proposition TD from the ballot, Bivins said, “I went back and read the Missouri statutes relative to that issue. And, of course, the statutes talk about the power of the fire district to raise taxes, and it would certainly seem reasonable to me if they have the power to raise taxes, put that on the ballot, then they ought to have the power to put on the ballot to lower taxes as well.

“So that was the reason I asked for the opinion from the attorney general, and in the event that he (Nixon) agrees with the judge, then we might consider some legislative action,” he added.

Shortly after Hartenbach removed Proposition TD from the ballot, Rep. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay, told the Call he would introduce legislation that would allow an elected board to place a tax-rate decrease before voters. But three months later, Lembke changed his mind and said he would not introduce any such measure.

“If I would have had a groundswell of people saying we want the ability to be able in this case to lower our taxes, I probably would have pursued it,” Lembke told the Call in May. “But it was just the opposite. I didn’t have feedback from my constituents that they thought we needed a change in the way it currently works.”

A recent statewide poll found widespread support for voters’ ability to consider a tax-rate-decrease measure.

The poll, conducted by Public Pulse Research, asked: “Thinking about your local property taxes, should citizens have the right to vote on tax-decrease proposals just as they currently are able to vote on tax increases such as bond and tax levies?”

Of 600 respondents, 83 percent said they supported the right to vote on tax-rate-decrease proposals. The poll carries a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.

Hilmer told the Call he was pleased to learn Bivins is seeking a legal opinion from Nixon on whether a fire-protection district board can place a tax-rate-decrease proposal before voters.

“Mr. Bivins is once again demonstrating by his actions how he defends taxpayers and is helping us to be able to vote on decreasing our tax rate,” he said. “This is in stark contrast to Mr. Lembke, whose actions prove he is more concerned about public-sector unions than he is residents’ pocketbooks.

“I hope that voters will join me in thanking Mr. Bivins for once again proving that he is doing something to help residents, and when voting next year remember the other empty suits from south county in Jefferson City who are doing nothing except blowing hot air while we get buried under 30-percent reassessments and rising property taxes,” Hilmer added.