Crestwood voters approve tax increase to help retire city’s debt

By BURKE WASSON

To help their city government pay off more than $3.5 million in debt and credit expenses, Crestwood voters last week decided to foot some of the bill for the next seven years.

More than 61 percent of Crestwood residents who voted April 4 favored Proposition S, a tax-rate increase of 20 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. Proposition S received 2,099 yes votes — 61.04 percent — and 1,340 no votes — 38.96 percent, according to unofficial results from the county Board of Election Commissioners.

Of Crestwood’s 9,148 registered voters, 3,463 — 37.86 percent — cast ballots.

Beginning in 2007, the city’s property tax rate will climb to 44.1 cents per $100 of assessed valuation from 24.1 cents per $100. The city’s personal property tax rate will increase to 45 cents per $100, and the city’s commercial tax rate will increase to 46.3 cents per $100. The tax will last seven years and generate an estimated $540,000 per year. That adds up to $3.78 million across the tax’s seven-year life.

Now that the tax-rate increase has been approved, City Administrator Frank Myers said work must begin to show voters that their faith in the city’s government on April 4 is rewarded. That’s why he and city staff members are working to provide a public report within the next 30 to 45 days on the use of Proposition S funds.

“We will be able to provide a public report at a (Board of Aldermen) meeting on that process because I know the public’s interested,” Myers said. “And I know the board will be interested as well.”

Myers said the extra funds that the tax-rate increase is expected to generate also will allow the city a little more flexibility when its $1.5 million line of credit with Southwest Bank expires in September. The city also has a $2 million promissory note with the bank. As collateral for the $3.5 million, the titles to City Hall and the city garage on Pardee Lane have been pledged.

“We’re in the process now of putting together a framework to try to bid to get competitive pricing for this loan so we get the best rates,” Myers said. “And also as this revenue comes in, how it’s going to flow where. When the mechanics of that get worked out, there will be a public report on this. The public needs to know how we’re going to be applying that money towards the debt and the line of credit.”

While the successful tax-rate increase is estimated to pay off the city’s debt and credit expenses in seven years, both Myers and Mayor Roy Robinson also realize that cost-cutting measures to the city’s budget need to be continued so the city does not accumulate any more debt.

“We recognize that we have to be extremely diligent in looking at ways to reduce our costs over time,” Myers said. “Prop S is very important in getting rid of our debt, but we still have to be … stewards of the public trust with how we manage the tax dollar and continue to develop ways in which we evaluate and identify cost savings to the community. And we’re committed to doing that.”

To follow through with their promises of cost savings, city officials have implemented city staff reductions, a salary freeze, consolidation of services, justification of expenses, cutting hours at the Community Center in Whitecliff Park, deferring capital items like street maintenance and vehicle purchases and planning a complete inventory of city property, which is something Robinson said has never been done before.

While city staff reductions have resulted in the equivalent of 130.25 employees in 2002 dropping to 107.25 employees in 2005, Robinson said he is eyeing more restructuring of city departments.

“We have cut just about everything we can cut,” Robinson said. “However, we are continually trying. We have not replaced numerous resignations and retirements. There’s a few of them we’re going to have to replace because we’ve got a court clerk retiring at the end of April. But we’ve got a secretary in the Police Department who resigned Friday. These people are not going to be replaced. We’re going to reorganize the Police Department to make it more efficient and consolidate as much as we can. Where we can save money, we’re going to take a look at what we can. The new (police) chief will be looking at the fleet to ensure that we do not have more vehicles than absolutely necessary. We’re going to take a look at all the departments and make sure that we’re able to provide the services. We’re doing it not with luxury. We’re doing it by tightening our belt.”

As for the hiring of a new police chief, Myers said he is confident that one of four current city police officers he has interviewed possesses the qualifications he desires. Myers said he hopes to recommend one of the candidates as Crestwood’s new police chief to the Board of Aldermen by the board’s April 25 meeting.

City officials also are awaiting word from Westfield corporate representatives, who could provide a much-needed financial boost to the city by enhancing the Westfield Shoppingtown Crestwood.

Myers said Westfield officials will meet with the Board of Aldermen in either May or June to discuss their plans for the mall.

“We do know that they have a project that they want to present for the Board of Aldermen to consider,” Myers said. “We are still working through both the schedule for that and the details of the project. At this point in time, we are looking at public hearings in either May or June on that project.”

As far as getting the word out about Proposition S, Robinson said he is both relieved that the word was successful and happy that Crestwood can start to climb out of its financial hole.

“Now with the burden of debt that we would have to address with the financial institution every September, we’re now in the driver’s seat,” Robinson said. “One thing that I would like to state is yes, I’m happy and I have two reasons for being happy. I believe the percentage of people that voted have confidence in the city, and now we’re going to do what we’re supposed to do with confidence and ensure that we build the trust that so many of them are seeking. So we’re going to do the right thing. We’re going to make sure that when that money starts coming in, it will be segregated where it’s supposed to be. It will be — and I guarantee this — it will be to pay off the debt, and we will have full accounting for every penny and it will be open to anyone who wants to see it.

“Bear with us. We’re doing everything in our power to get our city back to the way people want it. We’re not going to let anything get in the way of that.”