Crestwood files lawsuit challenging state laws officials helped to change

Suit contends city residents taxed without representation

Gregg Roby

Gregg Roby

By Mike Anthony

The city of Crestwood filed a lawsuit last week challenging two state laws that city officials were “instrumental” in helping to change over 20 years ago.

The lawsuit, filed May 24 in Cole County Circuit Court, challenges the constitutionality of two state laws requiring the city to make annual payments to the Affton Fire Protection District. Besides the Affton Fire Protection District, Gov. Eric Greitens and Attorney General Josh Hawley are named as defendants.

The state laws Crestwood is challenging as unconstitutional require the city to indefinitely make annual payments to the Affton Fire Protection District for providing fire service to an area that Crestwood annexed in 1997. The calculation of those payments is based on the district’s property-tax rate, which is higher than the tax rate a municipality is permitted to charge for the providing of fire service, the lawsuit alleges.

Since 1997, the city has paid Affton over $5 million.

Besides the city of Crestwood, Mayor Gregg Roby and David Schmoll, who lives in the Affton Fire Protection District but not in the city of Crestwood, are named as plaintiffs in the suit.

The Affton Fire Protection District is able to increase its tax rate by seeking voter approval from district residents, but “Crestwood and its taxpayers are without recourse. They are effectively taxed by the district without representation,” the suit contends. “Ironically, those property owners from within Crestwood that are actually served by the district are exempted from the district’s property-tax levy. Such a convoluted taxation scheme forces Crestwood to take money from its taxpayers and give it to a neighboring jurisdiction that gives Crestwood and its residents no input in its financial and government affairs.

“The district is totally unaccountable to Crestwood and its taxpayers from whom it extracts money.”

The “big issue” is that the cost the city is paying to Affton keeps escalating, Roby told the Call, noting the fire district obtained voter approval of a 25-cent tax-rate increase in the April 4 election.

The measure, Proposition A for Affton, increased the fire district’s tax rate to $1.49 per $100 of assessed valuation.

With the passage of Prop A, Crestwood’s annual payment to Affton could exceed $550,000 going forward.

“The dollars we pay to the Affton Fire Protection District will probably go up another $93,000 at the end of this year and put us in the position where we’re paying well over a half a million dollars a year to the Affton Fire Protection District. And our residents don’t get a say, and that’s the problem,” the mayor said. “To me, it’s just taxation without representation. You’ve got about 11,000 (Crestwood) residents who basically don’t get to vote on the issue, yet the taxes they pay in go towards paying the Affton Fire Protection District.”

Affton Fire Protection District Chief Nick Fahs declined to comment last week about the lawsuit, noting the district had yet to receive a copy of the suit for its legal counsel to review.

Voters approved the annexation of the roughly 290-acre area directly east of Crestwood Aug. 5, 1997. Separate majorities were required both in the area to be annexed and the city of Crestwood.

Residents in the annexed area voted 574 to 344 in favor of the measure, and Crestwood residents voted 1,146 to 169 in favor. Voter turnout in the annexed area was 72.96 percent, compared to 16.11 in Crestwood.

A nearly identical annexation proposal had been rejected by 16 votes in 1994, and then-Crestwood Mayor Jim Brasfield said at the time that he believed the question of whether the area would continue to be served by the Affton Fire Protection District was the reason for the defeat.

In May 1995, legislation approved by the General Assembly re-established the St. Louis County Boundary Commission and resolved the issue of fire protection in annexed areas. House Bill 446 stated, in part, “The annexing city shall pay annually to the fire protection district an amount equal to that which the fire protection district would have levied on all taxable property within the annexed area.”

As such, Crestwood officials were well aware that state law would require the annexed area to continue to be served by the Affton Fire Protection District, that residents in the area would no longer pay taxes to the fire district and that the city would have to pay those taxes to Affton.

In fact, then-City Administrator Kent Leichliter told the Call in July 1997, “We were instrumental in getting that done,” meaning changing the state law to protect fire protection districts such as Affton.

While residents who live in the annexed area are able to vote on measures placed on the ballot by the fire district, they have no incentive to cast a no vote on a tax-rate increase or a bond issue because they won’t have to pay for it, Roby said.

“… Think about it. If you know you’re not going to pay it, and a vote comes up, you’re going to say, ‘Well, sure, I’ll vote for it. It’s not going to cost me anything.’ So that’s another issue. The people who live in the annexed area believe that they’re voting for fire service that they’re not going to have to pay for,” he said.

The lawsuit also alleges the two state laws treat St. Louis County differently from all other counties in Missouri regarding this issue, including Jackson County in Kansas City. These “special laws” carving out St. Louis County are unconstitutional, the suit contends.

A ban on special laws has been a part of the Missouri Constitution since 1865, city officials say, noting the Missouri Supreme Court affirmed its opposition to special laws that treat St. Louis County differently than other Missouri counties in a May 16 ruling in the City of Normandy v. Greitens case challenging provisions of Senate Bill 5 regarding municipal court reforms.

If Crestwood’s challenge is successful, the city’s Fire Department is prepared to service the annexed area, according to city officials. They say that Crestwood would be able to provide a superior level of fire and EMS service to the annexed area with current staffing and equipment levels for less than $50,000 per year, saving city taxpayers over $500,000 annually.

City officials hold no animosity toward the fire district, Roby emphasized.

“We certainly have nothing against the Affton Fire Protection District,” he said. “We work with them all the time. We did call them when we filed this lawsuit to let them know that we were doing this and to let them know that, hey, this is nothing personal. It’s strictly business and we feel that the residents of our community will take this as a positive sign that the Board of Aldermen and the administration are attempting to maintain control over our finances.”