Crestwood mayor doesn’t blame city’s voters for rejecting 35-cent tax-rate increase

City officials must regain trust of residents, alderman says

By BURKE WASSON

Reflecting on Crestwood voters’ rejection last week of a proposed tax-rate increase, Mayor Roy Robinson said he doesn’t blame them.

“In the beginning, I wasn’t fully in favor of the tax at the time,” Robinson said. “I thought the timing was wrong … And I think the people have too many things that affect their lives on their plate. And if you are not really convincing, they’re going to take the way that costs them the least. And I don’t blame them.”

Crestwood voters convincingly defeated a proposed six-year, 35-cent tax-rate increase on real and personal property in the Aug. 5 election.

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

City officials said the tax-rate increase would have generated $1.1 million annually to maintain city services, combating an expected loss of sales-tax revenue during the Crestwood Court mall’s pending redevelopment.

While city officials say that the mall redevelopment should be completed in four to six years, mall owners have yet to publicly reveal any plans for that redevelopment. Between the lack of public plans for redevelopment and what Robinson termed as a “poor” job of explaining Prop 1 to residents, the mayor “wasn’t overly surprised” at the proposal’s failure.

“We probably did a poor job of putting the information together,” Robinson said. “I think the people worked hard. But we really didn’t do enough to really explain what we were trying to do. And when it’s confusing, people will take the other side.

“So we will try to do better in the future. I’m not even talking about any taxes in the future. We will try to better explain what we’re doing when we inform the people.”

Prop 1 was initiated at an April 30 town-hall meeting when Robinson proposed a five-year, 25-cent tax-rate increase. Subsequent discussions by the Board of Aldermen eventually pushed that proposal to a six-year, 35-cent tax-rate increase.

The mayor said last week that some aldermen privately had asked him in the weeks leading up to the April 30 town-hall meeting to consider placing a tax-rate increase on the Aug. 5 ballot.

“I wasn’t looking for a fight and I knew that it would fail if I came out against it,” he said. “However, the real thing is their concern was that the people have an opportunity to decide on the merits that we were presenting. And they did that. So, like I said before, we may have done a poor job of explaining. And maybe we needed to be more specific on what exactly was going on. However … I don’t have a crystal ball. I don’t want to be caught shorthanded, but I don’t know how bad it can get. So that was the main reason for us going for it. The board just felt the people ought to be able to vote on this situation, and I agreed with them.”

Now that Prop 1 has been rejected by voters, Robinson said Crestwood officials would examine further cuts in preparing the city’s 2009 budget. He emphasized that none would be “noticeable” and that he does not foresee any personnel cuts.

Ward 3 Alderman Jerry Miguel — the only alderman who voted against placing Prop 1 on the ballot — last week cited the city’s improved cash position over the past two years and reiterated that Prop 1, which he criticized as having “no real plan,” was not needed.

“The fact that it was rejected by over 70 percent, I view that as a mandate for the city to get its financial house in order,” he said. “I look at it as a directive for the city to get its costs in line with its revenues and that the people will not just give the city a blank check. There was no real plan for the use of the funds … Instead, the city was looking for a safety net to build a possible revenue gap. And that was clearly not enough reason for the people to approve a tax increase, especially in the economic times that we have today …

“Back last fall, the city was told it was facing a $500,000 deficit in 2008. And when I challenged that, the city checked and rechecked its numbers and had the auditors check them as well and then came back admitting that they had double counted its debt repayment and there was no looming deficit. Earlier in the year, the mayor made the statement that our cash position was down from the beginning of the year, and that was just not the case. Our cash position has improved in each six-month period over the past two years … After hearing we were facing a deficit, lo and behold we find out that we actually have more cash on hand than we realize and the city is required to either make a $525,000 prepayment on Prop S (debt) or it would be faced with converting its Prop S note to a taxable note instead of a tax-free note. Had the administration been on the ball last year, that money could have been applied to the various park projects that the proponents for this tax increase have been calling for.”

Miguel also said with pay raises given in May and June to 15 Police Department employees without board approval and the fact that the city advertised Prop 1 informational town-hall meetings that actually were led by the campaign committee Crestwood Residents for Prop 1, he believes city officials must work to regain residents’ trust by restoring transparency.

“Things got very opaque this past spring,” he said. “First, there were selective midyear salary increases (for 15 Police Department employees) that were implemented without board approval and appear to be in violation of city code. And just as troubling to me was the use of the city’s newsletter and reverse 911 to promote the so-called town-hall meetings for a pro-tax committee. The city newsletter was totally misleading, and a number of residents said as much at the various meetings. People were told that they could go to these meetings and obtain all the facts. And that just was not the case, and it was admittedly a pro-tax committee that was presenting the meetings. There was obvious collaboration between the city and the political committee between the newsletter and the presentation. Charts and graphs that appeared in the newsletter were also presented in the political presentations. In fact, the city may have crossed the line in that city resources were used to support a political committee, which is something that is prohibited by Missouri statute. I don’t believe the line was crossed intentionally. But I do believe the line was crossed and needs to be looked into.

“… From here, I think we’re going to go back and do what should have been done in the first place. And that is to cut costs and lay out a comprehensive five-year plan. People want leadership and they want transparency and they want accountability.

“And I am confident that the city will move in this direction because I have a lot of confidence in our new city administrator, Mr. Jim Eckrich. I feel that he will provide the leadership and the transparency and the accountability that we need at this time. I am also confident that Mr. Eckrich is wise enough to stay out of the politics.”