Crestwood aldermen to form revenue committee of citizens

Despite financial woes, mayor says ‘we’ve restored the integrity of this city’

By BURKE WASSON

Anticipating more expenditures than revenues in each of the next five years, Crestwood aldermen last week took steps to address the issue and reach out to residents.

The Board of Aldermen voted unanimously Nov. 5 to establish a revenue committee comprised of eight residents — two from each of the city’s four wards — to study ways of enhancing revenues, which have decreased in each of the last few years while expenditures have increased.

The motion to approve the committee was made by board President Chris Pickel of Ward 2 and seconded by Ward 2 Alderman Michael Kelsch, who had proposed earlier in the meeting that some form of committee be established.

Aldermen will submit the names of residents to serve on the committee when the board meets Nov. 25. Pickel, who also serves on the city’s Economic Development Commission, will chair the committee.

City officials will be forced to use cash reserves to balance the proposed 2009 budget. While the general fund projects a $49,925 surplus, expenditures totaling $198,916 more than revenues are anticipated in the capital-improvements fund and the park and stormwater fund forecasts expenditures totaling $488,869 more than revenues.

While the proposed 2009 budget shows $637,860 in expenditures over revenues across all three major funds, Eckrich’s projected five-year plan predicts even greater annual shortfalls. That five-year plan, which is based on a 2-percent annual cost increase and department heads’ individual five-year plans, forecasts combined major-fund annual shortfalls of $1.72 million in 2010, $1.61 million in 2011, $1.63 million in 2012 and $1.3 million in 2013.

City Administrator Jim Eckrich already has proposed one way of adding revenue by using funds collected through a successful 2006 tax-rate increase originally designed to pay off debt.

The city would retire its remaining $1.57 million in debt and use the roughly $550,000 collected annually through Proposition S to build cash reserves.

Proposition S, which currently taxes residents at a rate of 16.9 cents per $100 of assessed value, expires in 2013.

While the city already has an Economic Development Commission designed to enhance the city’s retail revenues, Pickel said retail is “just one variable of the equation” and other avenues should be considered by the committee.

“Have a committee that really looks at revenue and, as much as I hate the term, think outside the box about what types of revenue streams we can identify on a going-forward basis that are going to replace the loss we’re going to continue to see in retail sales tax,” Pickel said.

Pickel also suggested that the committee have a timetable to make recommendations that aldermen can “take action on in the spring.”

Ward 3 Alderman Gregg Roby said the city has qualified residents to serve on the committee and believes that measures supported by the citizens involved then would stand a better chance of being supported by the city as a whole.

“I think if we’re going to select people that we should go for the big hitters,” Roby said. “And I think we all know who those people are in our wards. And I think we bring those people together and let them work on this under the supervision of one or two aldermen who can then bring the information back on behalf of those citizens. I believe if you get the support of the citizens in that group, you would then have the support of the community.”

While identifying possible revenue increases, some aldermen also believe additional cuts can be made to the 2009 budget.

Ward 4 Alderman Steve Nieder proposed shuttering the Sappington House — which closed Nov. 1 — along with eliminating the animal control officer position, cutting the $11,000 annual expense for security at Board of Aldermen meetings, combining code-enforcement duties and cutting a $61,000 open position in the Police Department. He also referred to the effects of changing Crestwood’s taxing status as a pool city, developing five- and 10-year budget plans and equalizing the costs of paying for the city’s annexed area served by the Affton Fire Protection District.

But Pickel believes the focus should be on enhancing revenues rather than making cuts.

“The cuts are always going to be reactionary,” Pickel said. “And they’re always going to compromise the levels of services that the residents have indicated that they want. I think the real focus needs to be on an ad hoc committee that looks at revenues going forward.”

Ward 4 Alderman John Foote also pushed city officials to “level” with residents and present an accurate picture of the city’s faltering finances, which he said they have not done for the past three years.

“From 2006, 2007, 2008 and again in 2009, we have repeatedly cut revenue estimates,” he said. “And we smiled at the people out here in the city and we said our budgets are balanced … And each year, we drop revenue, slowly increase the costs of services and defer repairs … We have residents out there who do not understand the true picture … And now we say we’ve got this good budget. It’s the same old budget. Revenues are (dropping) and expenses are (rising). So until we can get the attention of the residents and illustrate our plight accurately to the residents, it’s a total exercise in futility …

“We level with the people out here in the city. And let’s not pull any punches. I would ask the city administrator to go back and take the total city income audited figures for 2006, 2007 (along with 2008 and 2009 estimates) and put them in the paper. Total city revenues. And then put beside those figures the sales income that we’re getting consistently falling down. Take the cost of fire … And police services … And maybe something to handle streets … We are completely turning a blind eye to the fiscal management of this city. And we’d better stop doing it unless we bring in front of the residents what exactly we have done.”

Kelsch also encouraged aldermen to be unified in their efforts and pointed to the board’s “disjointed” nature last summer as a key reason why 72 percent of voters rejected a proposed 35-cent tax-rate increase in August.

“I think we as a board were a disjointed effort in trying to get that together that had very little agreement and very little continuity,” Kelsch said “… I think that if we came together as a unified board, looked at things that made sense, documented what we wanted to do, put together a realistic tax situation for the residents, we may stand a chance instead of sitting there next August like we were last August.”

But Mayor Roy Robinson cautioned that he likely would not support asking residents for another tax increase unless certain conditions were met.

“I will not ever get back into that game, “Robinson said. “If the people want an increase and we cannot afford the services … the people are going to have to tell me they want me to support the thing … That (Prop 1) tax increase should have been passed. And it would have been if we didn’t have a small segment of this community who are negative and against everything you try to do. They’re always criticizing everything and are accusing you of not upholding your oath of office or whatever. I tell you, I’m really sick of it because these people are not legitimate. They’re not out here trying to help this community. They’re trying to tear it down. When I came into this city, it was about dead. And I think what we’ve done is we’ve restored the integrity of this city.

“… Some of the people still want to talk about cuts. There’s a point where you cut beyond what you can afford to. We’re going to have to give up services, but what are we going to give up? Do we close Whitecliff (Park)? Do we close the parks? I guarantee you if we close the parks, we’ll get the attention of everybody in this city because they will know that it has a direct effect on them and their children. I’d rather close the parks than I would the Police Department and Fire Department because without them, you can’t have the others.”

If the city is to improve its finances, Foote reiterated residents must see accurate information.

“Let’s talk facts, not innuendoes and not smoke and mirrors,” Foote said. “We need to define it. And the residents need to understand it … We’re just repeating the same gyrations. We’re only a year later and a heck of a lot poorer …

“We have a hell of a problem we’re going to have to fix. And we’ve been deferring it now for about three years.”