Crestwood sets town-hall meetings for 2008

Mayor Robinson responds to Mehlville fire district proposal

By BURKE WASSON

Crestwood officials have decided that before considering any changes to city services, they first need to hear from residents.

The Board of Aldermen unanimously approved a motion last week to schedule town-hall meetings in January, February and March to present status reports on the city’s services and solicit input from residents on potential improvements or changes.

The decision comes on the heels of Mayor Roy Robinson’s response to a Nov. 1 letter from Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors Chairman Aaron Hilmer, who proposed contracting Crestwood’s fire and ambulance services through Mehlville at “a savings to the city of Crestwood of over $200,000 every year.”

In his Nov. 16 response, Robinson wrote that because Hilmer’s letter was not sent to City Administrator Frank Myers, who has questions concerning how Hilmer “arrived at his figures,” and because the Board of Aldermen already has completed work sessions for the city’s 2008 budget, he would prefer “to be very cautious before changing such a critical life safety service.”

Hilmer said last week that he respects the city’s decision to schedule town-hall forums and hopes to present a finalized proposal to city officials after the conclusion of those meetings. His original proposal stated that Mehlville could deliver fire, emergency medical services and dispatching for $2.1 million per year, which is less than Crestwood’s 2007 fire budget of $2,327,000.

To obtain residents’ input and better understand the city’s services and finances, Ward 4 Alderman John Foote suggested conducting town-hall meetings next year.

“The residents need to be involved in these decisions and certainly have an opportunity to voice their opinions,” Foote said Nov. 13. “And it would be a very good situation if we could pull them together in meetings in January, February and March and really discuss the services and the costs of our services so they fully understand what we’re doing. And if there is a competitive situation from other surrounding municipalities, there’s an opportunity for us to make comparisons and to settle on what the residents want.”

Board President Gregg Roby of Ward 3 believes that the town-hall meetings should also focus on displaying the needs and financial challenges of each city department to residents.

“We need to lay out for the citizens where each department currently stands as far as their needs to complete the work and provide the services that they provide to our city,” Roby said. “And let them know what it is we’ve had to cut back on. Let them know what it is we’re at this point in time holding off purchasing … and for what reason.”

Roby said he also agrees with the decision to hold off on the Mehlville fire district’s proposal because aldermen have completed their review of the proposed 2008 budget and because the city will better know the state of the city’s economy, specifically the Westfield Shoppingtown Crestwood, in the next year.

“I fully believe that come 2009 or at the end of 2008, we’ll have a much clearer picture as to where we are,” Roby said. “If a new developer comes into the mall and turns things around and sales tax goes up, it’s a moot point … I believe we’ve got one of the finest fire departments in St. Louis County. And I’m not going to make any rash decisions or jump to any opportunity to make a change unless there are some major, major advantages.”

To contract for fire service, Roby said he would require two steps — a vote of the people and the development of a request for proposals so the city could compete with other fire districts for bidding.

“I would never as an alderman vote to make a change of that type without first going to a vote of the citizens of Crestwood,” Roby said. “I’m not going to participate in an eight-man decision of that type. I want the citizens to have a vote on that … No. 2, I believe that before any proposal of that type could ever be accepted by the city, we would go out for additional proposals from the other surrounding fire districts, which at this time we’re not really interested in doing.”

Ward 2 Alderman Chris Pickel said while he also agrees with the city’s decision to schedule town-hall meetings, he wonders why the Mehlville fire district’s proposal was not discussed during a Nov. 6 work session on the budget. Hilmer’s letter was sent to Robinson, aldermen and Fire Chief Karl Kestler on Nov. 1.

While Pickel said he did not see the letter by Nov. 6 and later read of the proposal in the Call, he questions why no other city official mentioned the proposal during the board’s Nov. 6 budget work session.

“When the Call came out, I had not seen the letter,” Pickel said. “My letter arrived after the Call came out. So honestly, when it was in the Call, it was the first that I had heard of the situation or of the proposal.

“And I was surprised because the night before (Nov. 6), we were having a meeting talking about the revenue side of the 2008 budget. And it just seems to me that we have a fiduciary responsibility to the residents of the city. And if there was a proposal that had been put forth with the potential to save substantial money, it seems that it should come up in conversation at some point. I’m not saying I’m in favor of the proposal or that it’s the right thing to do. But it does seem like because we have this fiduciary responsibility, if there’s a way to save considerable money for the city, we at least have to discuss the possibility.”

Pickel said that besides gauging residents’ feelings on city services, he feels that the key component to address during the coming town-hall meetings is making sure citizens better understand the city’s finances.

“My hope coming out of them is that the citizens have a firm grasp of our financial situation,” Pickel said. “They see numbers in the Call all the time. And I get calls from residents who say: ‘One week we’re up. One week we’re down. What’s the story?’ And you have to try to explain that all the time. I want them to come out of that and really have a strong feel for our financial situation both now in the near term and also in the long term.

“I think certainly a large portion of those discussions at town hall have to be centered on the mall and what’s going to happen there. Hopefully, we’ll know more about Westfield’s intentions in the very near future.”

Ward 1 Alderman Richard Bland added that for the town-hall meetings to be truly successful, it will require a “cross section” and variety of residents to provide input.

But while he will urge citizens to attend those meetings, Bland said he also believes the city’s elected officials should relinquish the floor to residents to truly gauge their views.

“We have to have an agenda,” Bland said. “I don’t want to see these things degenerate into an opportunity for any one of us elected officials to stand up and just pontificate. I think we’ve pretty well spoken our piece at board meetings. We’re provided the information on the status of the city budget and the revenue stream and this and that. I think it’s important now for us to sort of stand back and listen to what the citizens have to say. That’s going to give us some idea of what we as a board need to be looking to do down the line.”