Crestwood board urged to seek tax hike or make cuts

Crestwood mayor ‘not afraid’ to ask voters for tax-rate hike.

By EVAN YOUNG

Some Crestwood residents recently urged the Board of Aldermen to either pursue a tax-rate increase or make drastic cuts so the community becomes cognizant of the city’s financial issues.

The board is scheduled to consider final approval of the proposed 2011 city budget when it meets at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 14, at the Government Center, 1 Detjen Drive.

As currently proposed, the 2011 budget anticipates $11,601,007 in revenues, $11,873,771 in expenditures and the use of reserves to cover the resulting $272,764 projected deficit.

It also includes a five-year plan, based on a 2-percent annual cost increase and department heads’ individual five-year plans, that forecasts a sharp decline in the city’s total cash across all three major funds: $2.06 million in 2011, $1.3 million in 2012, $360,801 in 2013, a negative $968,426 in 2014 and a negative $2.7 million in 2015.

The projected drop in revenue stems primarily from a combination of declining sales taxes and the sunset after 2011 of the city’s Proposition S property tax, officials have said.

With that in mind, Crestwood resident and regular board meeting attendee Jerome Friedeck believes the city should go out for a property tax-increase.

“I think the people really owe this city a 35-cent tax increase, and you people are too afraid to ask for it,” Friedeck told the board during a Nov. 23 public hearing on the budget. “You won’t have to pinch pennies every day … You’re not going to have a lot left over, but you’re going to have to do something, and what you need is a 35-cent tax increase.”

Crestwood voters defeated a proposed six-year, 35-cent tax-rate increase on real and personal property in the August 2008 primary election.

A total of 2,159 residents — 71.66 percent — voted “no” on Proposition 1 and 854 residents — 28.34 percent — voted “yes.”

Voter turnout was 33.6 percent in August 2008, or 3,035 ballots cast out of 9,040 registered voters.

Prop 1 would have generated $1.1 million annually to maintain city services.

Mayor Roy Robinson said to Friedeck at the public hearing, “You’re probably correct. We probably need a tax increase to be able to keep in comparison with other cities around us. We are so far behind in that aspect, but … 66 percent of the people who were registered voters did not vote the last time they turned down the tax increase that we asked for. So the people who were against it were the ones that turned out, and they told us they don’t want a tax increase.

“… And I understand where you’re coming from. It’s not that we don’t want to do it, and … I’m not afraid to go out for one. I just don’t think that with the tax increases that have been recently passed for the (Lindbergh) school district … and with this economy, the people, they’re not going to give us a tax increase at this time. And once you start this you’ve got to have moneys to be able to get the word out to the people.”

“Well I think it’s about time you start,” Friedeck said, and added later, “You need it — you know that. You can’t keep cutting back. Like I said a couple of meetings ago, I don’t want a fire truck to come to my house and they say: … ‘You got somebody to run the hose?’ I don’t want it to come to that. And that’s what it’s going to come to. In other words, what I’m saying is you need a tax increase to run your city.”

Voters at Lindbergh Schools — which includes Crestwood — approved a 65-cent tax-rate increase last month.

Former Ward 3 Alderman Gregg Roby told the board before the Nov. 2 election that if the measure, Proposition L, was approved, Crestwood would “not get a dime” from its residents for the foreseeable future.

But Robinson contended at the Nov. 23 public hearing that officials don’t know how much financial help, if any, the city will need in coming years.

“We don’t know what’s going to be needed in five years. We’ve got a guess. It could change …,” he said. “If the economy turns around, there’s potential that we may be able to make up a lot of the retail sales, and the redevelopment of the mall will help us do it. We’ve been hanging on by our fingernails.”

Officials are banking on a redevelopment of the Crestwood Court mall to boost sales tax revenues. While the mall’s owners have said they intend to do so, they have yet to publicly reveal any plans for that redevelopment.

Friedeck said, “The only thing you’re going to get from the mall for the next several years is merchant’s licenses … and property taxes. That’s it. You’re not going to see anything coming from that mall until five years after they start knocking down the bricks. Then they’re going to get all their tax breaks in it, and you’re still going to get nothing. So it has to be paid out of the bedroom tax.”

“I didn’t say we’d get it immediately,” Robinson said. “I think as the economy turns around, if we go out with a good case we might be able to convince people to provide us with a tax increase, but … with times as bad as they are right now, I don’t think anyone wants to sit around and talk about a tax increase, although I know you’re correct.”

Crestwood resident Karen Rainey praised officials for presenting what she called a “bare-bones budget.” However, she suggested the city either ask for a tax-rate increase or start cutting “necessary” items so residents “will start noticing” and “realize what a dire situation we’re in.”

Rainey identified snow removal as a possible budget reduction. That may present safety issues, she said, “but at the same time the citizens of Crestwood don’t seem to be getting it.”

“They don’t seem to be understanding that there’s not much more to cut without them starting to feel a big pinch,” Rainey said. “Not having their streets shoveled in the winter would certainly show them that we had to cut something, and that’s what went.”

She also urged the board to consider extending Prop S. Although aldermen voted earlier this year to sunset the property tax after 2011, the Prop S ballot language allows it to be levied through 2012.

Collection of Prop S beyond 2012 would require voter approval.

“I think it would go much easier for citizens if we could advertise that by extending this tax we’re not increasing their taxes any,” Rainey said. “They’re already paying that — we’re just extending the sunset clause.”

Ward 4 Alderman John Foote stressed the city is able to provide services to residents “just barely” and has deferred building and street improvements, which eventually will “come up and bite you because you cannot delay the repairs.”

At the same time, Crestwood’s property tax rate is a “bargain” compared to other St. Louis County municipalities, Foote contended.

“It is time for the residents to start paying attention,” Foote said. “It’s your city. You want to run it pretty much like a bargain basement — that’ll happen.”