County officials’ unresponsiveness top story of 2007

News Analysis

By MIKE ANTHONY

Executive Editor

With their actions during 2007, St. Louis County officials have reawakened a sleeping giant — south county.

For that very reason, the Call’s No. 1 story of 2007 actually is a combination of three stories that reflect county government’s unresponsiveness to the needs of south county residents — the establishment of trash districts in unincorporated areas, County Counselor Pat Redington’s decision to settle a lawsuit with Fred Weber Inc. over the company’s plans to build a trash-transfer station in Oakville and a proposed half-cent sales tax to fund MetroLink expansion to west county and north county.

Though legislation establishing trash districts actually was unanimously approved by the County Council in December 2006, its impact did not become clear until 2007 as 6th District County Councilman John Campisi, R-south county, repudiated his “yes” vote, saying he was “opposed to the whole damn thing.”

While Campisi joined the rest of the County Council last year in voting in favor of the trash-district plan, he since has said he was misled by former 3rd District Councilman Skip Mange, R-Town and Country. Campisi has alleged that Mange told him the proposal would have designated two days per week for trash pickup while still allowing all residents to choose their own trash haulers.

South county residents’ dissatisfaction with the county’s plan to establish trash districts was compounded last fall when they learned Redington had agreed in October to a settlement with Weber that would permit the company to construct the trash-transfer station at 5219 Baumgartner Road.

Nearby residents had opposed the trash-transfer station since it first was proposed by Weber in 2003.

To challenge county officials’ actions, two groups have formed in south county — Citizens Against Trashy Government is opposed to the trash districts and the trash-transfer station while Make Your Opinion Count LLC is working on an initiative petition to repeal the trash districts and halt the county’s new minimum standards for trash collection.

Another south county group — Citizens Against Prop M — was formed to oppose a half-cent sales-tax increase placed on the Feb. 5 ballot by the County Council to expand MetroLink to west county and north county and provide maintenance to Metro light-rail trains and buses.

Before the group even began its efforts, the County Council removed Proposition M from the ballot after former Metro Chief Operating Officer Larry Salci’s well-documented appearance on KTVI-TV’s “You Paid for It” program and after a St. Louis County Circuit Court jury ordered Metro to pay $2.56 million to a group of four firms that the transit agency had sued for $80 million.

But county spokesman Mac Scott has said that Prop M likely will appear in some form on a future ballot. We predict any future MetroLink proposal will receive exactly the same reception as Prop M in south county unless a regional transportation plan is developed that details MetroLink expansion, including costs and a reasonable timetable to bring it here.

• No. 2 — Mehlville Fire Protection District board places Proposition TD on ballot. During a Jan. 3 Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors meeting, President Aaron Hilmer and Treasurer Bonnie Stegman voted to place Proposition TD, or Tax Decrease, on the April ballot.

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.”

But a St. Louis County Circuit Court judge removed Proposition TD from the April 3 ballot in response to a lawsuit filed Feb. 7 by Concord resident Dennis Skelton. Voters “repaid” Skelton by unceremoniously rejecting his write-in candidacy for a seat on the fire board and overwhelmingly electing reform candidate Ed Ryan.

• No. 3 — Terry Noble becomes superintendent of the Mehlville School District. Terry Noble assumed the reins of the Mehlville School District July 1, though he had maintained a presence in the district since the board announced his hiring in September 2006.

As superintendent, Noble is building on the positive changes begun by interim Superintendent Jerry Chambers and leading the district forward, restoring the district’s credibility that was seriously eroded under the tenure of former Superintendent Tim Ricker and Ricker’s board supporters. With Noble’s leadership, Mehlville’s future now looks bright.

• No. 4 — The Mehlville School District launches a community-engagement program. The Mehlville School District last spring kicked off its community-engagement program, COMPASS — Charting the Oakville-Mehlville Path to Advance Successful Schools. Coupled with public forums and Saturday Morning Café sessions, administrators and Board of Education members are making a real effort to solicit public input from supporters and critics alike. COMPASS participants have been studying a variety of topics, including student achievement, finances, technology and staffing. The COMPASS Facilitating Team is charged with formulating residents’ concerns and suggestions for the future of the district into recommendations that tentatively will be presented to the Board of Education in May.

• No. 5 — Lindbergh forms task force to address space concerns at Sperreng. The Lindbergh Board of Education voted unanimously Oct. 9 to form a task force to recommend an appropriate response to space concerns at Sperreng Middle School, which has an enrollment of 1,323 pupils.

Possible options discussed during a special meeting on Oct. 6 included construction of an addition to the middle school or the reconfiguration of the district’s existing facilities to house two middle schools.

As discussed, Sperreng and Truman Elementary School would be middle schools serving pupils in grades five through eight with early childhood education, or ECE, at both sites. The district’s existing elementary schools would serve pupils in kindergarten through fourth grade. Concord, the current site of the ECE program, would be renovated into a fifth elementary school.

The school board established what Superintendent Jim Sandfort termed the “the most significant committee assembled by the district to report back to the board” in the past four or five years.

• No. 6 — Judge rules against Mehlville Fire Protection District union employees in pension case. Mehlville Fire Protection District union employees’ request for a permanent injunction prohibiting the the Board of Directors from changing the fire district’s pension plan to a defined-contribution plan from a defined-benefit plan was denied Aug. 27 by St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge Thea A. Sherry.

On Dec. 24, Sherry denied union employees’ motion for a new trial, but granted their motion for an injunction pending appeal that prohibits the board from making any changes to the district’s pension plan.

On Dec. 28, a notice of appeal was filed by attorney John Goffstein, who represents Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. Look for more of this story later this year and perhaps even next year.

Union employees were unsuccessful in an earlier lawsuit filed against the board. Local 1889 filed suit in June 2005, asking the court to prohibit the board from implementing a disability-benefit contract with Standard Insurance and eliminating current disability benefits from the district’s existing pension plan.

• No. 7 — Sewer district board votes to increase rates. The Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District voted last month to raise wastewater rates by 15 percent beginning Jan. 1 and increase stormwater rates from a flat 24-cent monthly fee to a new system based on a customer’s impervious — or non-absorbent— property effective March 1. Board member Dee Joyce-Hayes voted “no” on each proposal.

MSD officials again will submit a revised rate proposal to the district’s Rate Commission that includes consideration of a bond issue. But in two separate votes last year, the Rate Commission recommended that the district not pursue any bonds or debt financing to reduce rates.

The Rate Commission voted 7-4 against pursuing debt financing to reduce next year’s rate hikes and also voted 8-3 in opposition to letting voters decide no later than November 2008 whether they would like the district to use debt financing to reduce those rates.

But MSD Executive Director Jeff Theerman stated in his December report to the board that the district indeed will ask the Rate Commission to reconsider a bond issue to reduce wastewater rates. If that’s true, then why even have a Rate Commission?

The modified rate plan comes after County Executive Charlie Dooley and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay — who each appoint three members to the six-person MSD Board of Trustees — asked the board to reduce the district’s originally proposed rates that were tentatively approved in October by the board.

• No. 8 — Crestwood aldermen issue request for proposals to redevelop mall. The Crestwood Board of Aldermen voted unanimously in August to issue a request for redevelopment proposals, or RDP, for the struggling Westfield Shoppingtown Crestwood. Amid rumors that the mall has been sold, aldermen voted last month to extend that RDP deadline to March 3.

While the city took steps in August to solicit redevelopment bids, Westfield officials employed the consulting services of Eastdil Secured to assist in their efforts to sell the mall property, which is the only shopping center in the St. Louis area that the Westfield Group still fully owns.

City officials already have been grappling with the loss of revenue at the Crestwood mall from the October closing of Dillard’s, which was one of the mall’s three anchor stores.

• No. 9 — Missouri Press Association attorney questions Crestwood’s compliance with Sunshine Law. A Crestwood “administrative policy” of not providing meeting notices to media outlets requesting such notices violated the state Open Meetings and Records Law, also called the Sunshine Law, Jean Maneke, an attorney representing the Missouri Press Association, told the Call in June.

One week after reiterating his stance of not providing public-meeting notices to the media, City Administrator Frank Myers changed his policy. Myers, taking “full responsibility” for the administrative policy set in January to deny the media of meeting notices, now believes the policy does not reflect the city’s goal of transparent government. Aldermen later voted 5-3 to adopt a resolution approving a policy to send public-meeting notices to media outlets requesting such notification.

Maneke later contended aldermen violated the Sunshine Law with a closed-session consensus decision to prepare a request to redevelop the Crestwood mall.

• No. 10 — Lindbergh School District’s Taxpayers Task Force finishes report. Members of the Lindbergh School District’s Taxpayers Task Force concluded their work Dec. 27 by finalizing nine recommendations they hope will benefit taxpayers — particularly those on fixed in-comes — without financially harming the school district.

Members of the task force focused on striking a balance between the concerns of taxpayers and the financial needs of the school district. They plan to share their report with state legislators locally and during a trip to Jefferson City. The task force also planned to present its report to the Board of Education Tuesday night — after the Call went to press.