Defeat of Mehlville’s Prop A leads Call’s top 10 stories of 2006

News analysis

By MIKE ANTHONY

The year 2006 certainly was one of transition for south county that resulted in many new faces serving in appointed and elected governmental positions.

Some of those transitions will continue this year, for example, as Crestwood residents will continue to see the impact of term limits when they go to the polls in April for aldermanic elections. And other changes will continue next year, such as when Lindbergh Superintendent Jim Sandfort’s retirement is effective at the end of the 2007-2008 school year.

But during the past year, what led to perhaps the biggest turnover of elected and appointed officials was voters’ overwhelming rejection last February of a 97-cent tax-rate increase proposed by the Mehlville School District. Given the numerous positive changes that have occurred in the Mehlville School District since then, the defeat of the tax-rate increase, called Proposition A, is without a doubt the No. 1 news story of 2006.

In what could only be termed prescient, Mehlville Board of Education member Karl Frank Jr. said in October 2005 that he believed any tax-rate increase placed before voters “will go down in a resounding defeat,” but “I believe that placing a tax levy on the ballot may be the only means necessary to supply this Board of Education with the wake-up call necessary to truly begin to move the Mehlville School District forward …”

After the board placed Proposition A on the ballot, supporters of the measure encountered something new — organized opposition to a Mehlville School District ballot measure. A committee called No Accountability, No on A was formed by Oakville residents Aaron Hilmer and Jim Stonebraker to oppose Proposition A.

Mehlville voters overwhelmingly rejected Proposition A in the Feb. 7 election. The tax-rate increase received 6,746 yes votes — 36.05 percent — and 11,968 no votes — 63.95 percent, according to the official results from the county Board of Election Commissioners.

Of the district’s 65,546 registered voters, 18,812 — 28.70 percent — cast ballots in the election.

Supporters of Proposition A were quick to assign blame for voters’ rejection of the proposed tax-rate increase. At a school- board meeting two days after the election, the co-chairs of a committee that advocated passage of the 97-cent tax-rate increase blamed Call Newspapers and Frank for the proposition’s defeat despite the fact the measure carried just one of 43 polling places.

Perhaps then-Board of Education candidate Tom Diehl had it right when he said Feb. 9, “… Tuesday’s election shows that there is a tremendous credibility gap between south county residents and the Mehlville School District. This huge turnout and negative vote is much more than an anti-tax mentality, the number of private school students who live in the district or reassessment. Voters were grading the Mehlville School District on performance, accountability and trust.”

During a closed session that same night, the board accepted the resignation of Superintendent Tim Ricker, effective June 30. In a letter to the board, Ricker emphasized that his decision was not related to voters’ Feb. 7 rejection of Proposition A.

In the April school board election, incumbents Mike Heins and Bill Schornheuser were defeated in their re-election bids as voters elected Diehl and Micheal Ocello.

With two new members, the school board — under the leadership of President Ken Leach and Frank as vice president — began working to restore the performance, accountability and trust to which Diehl referred in February.

Other important changes include the hiring of interim Superintendent Jerry Chambers, who has done more in the last six months to create good will in both the district and the community than was done over the previous three years, and the hiring of permanent Superintendent Terry Noble, who will begin his duties on July 1. The same night he was hired by the board in September, Noble pledged to give his “very best effort” to forge a partnership with the community and move the district forward academically and fiscally.

No. 2 — Sunset Hills voters oust mayor, four incumbent aldermen.

Five political newcomers defeated Mayor Jim Hobbs and four incumbent aldermen in what could only be termed a clean sweep of city government in the April election. The only exception was longtime Collector Thomas Fleer, who was unopposed.

Voters elected Mayor John Hunzeker, Ward 1 Alderman Frank Hardy, Ward 2 Alderman Thomas Hrastich, Ward 3 Alderman Lynn D. Flowers and Ward 4 Alderman Frank Gregory. Besides Hobbs, ousted were Ward 1 Alderman John Tipton, Ward 2 Alderman John Smith, Ward 3 Alderman Robert Brockhaus and Ward 4 Alderman A. Ron Kaemmerer.

All five ousted officials had supported the aborted MainStreet at Sunset shopping center proposed by the Novus Development Co. that would have razed 254 homes in the Sunset Manor subdivision. City officials still are studying a recently completed condition assessment of the subdivision, and Hunzeker recently told the Call that from those findings, city leaders can now fully see what they have to work with and appropriately revitalize the neighborhood.

No. 3 — Mehlville Fire Protection District board sets 2007 tax rate at 69.8 cents. The Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors voted unanimously in August to set the district’s fiscal 2007 tax rate at 69.8 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. The “blended” fiscal 2007 tax rate of 69.8 cents per $100 of assessed valuation is 42.8 percent less than the legal maximum of $1.22 per $100 the district could levy and 18.4 percent less than the previous tax rate of 85.5 cents per $100.

In June, board members learned that a decision to voluntarily roll back the district’s 2006 tax rate by levying only four cents of a voter-approved 33-cent tax-rate increase saved the district’s taxpayers $4.576 million, according to the district’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for the fiscal year that ended Dec. 31, 2005.

Voters in November 2004 approved Proposition S — a 33-cent tax-rate increase designed to address the fire district’s needs for the next five years. The 36.5-percent tax-rate in-crease was formulated by the Fire District Advisory Committee for Tomorrow’s Emergency Services, or FACTS, during a two-month public engagement process that involved about 100 district residents.

But board members voted 2-1 in August 2005 to levy only four cents of the 33-cent Proposition S tax-rate increase. At the same time, the board reduced the alarm-fund tax levy by four cents. As a result, residents did not see an increase in the district’s tax rate.

Voting in favor of setting the tax rate at 85.5 cents were Chairman Aaron Hilmer and Treasurer Bonnie Stegman. Secretary Dan Ottoline Sr. was opposed.

Hilmer now is proposing to place before voters a proposition to permanently reduce the district’s general-fund tax-rate ceiling by 45 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, which would equate to a total tax reduction of roughly $9.75 million per year. The board is scheduled to vote this week on whether to place Proposition TD, or Tax Decrease, on the April 3 ballot.

This most likely will be the No. 1 story of 2007.

No. 4 — South County Fire Alarm employees receive pay hike. A memorandum of understanding that provides across-the-board salary increases of 2 percent in 2007 for South County Fire Alarm Association employees was approved in October by the SCFAA Board of of Directors.

Besides the salary increase, the approved memorandum of understanding increases the employee bonus for not using sick leave and leaves unchanged the percentage of district-paid premiums for dependent medical, dental and vision insurance.

SCFAA employees — with the exception of the general manager and assistant manager — are members of Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

No. 5 — Lindbergh School District superintendent to retire. Longtime Lindbergh Superintendent Jim Sandfort announced in April that he would step down at the end of the 2007-2008 school year. Sandfort, 63, has never sought the limelight since he first became superintendent in 1991, preferring to lead quietly by example as students have excelled academically and the district has achieved financial stability. As a testament to his leadership skills, voters in November approved Proposition R, described by Lindbergh administrators as a no-tax-rate-increase $32 million bond issue. Besides a partial building replacement at Sappington Elementary and a minor building addition at Kennerly Elementary, Proposition R will fund a variety of projects in schools throughout the district, including new roofs, the replacement of rooftop HVAC units, classroom doors that lock from the inside for elementary schools, fire alarms and security cameras in most buildings.

No. 6 — Fraser defeats Odenwald; Democrats regain majority on County Council. After serving the County Council’s 5th District since 1990, Kurt Odenwald, R-Shrewsbury, was defeated in the November election by Rep. Barbara Fraser, D-University City. As a result, Democrats now hold four of the council’s seven seats for the first time since 2000.

Odenwald, who left office as council chairman, attributed his defeat to the Democratic wave that swept the nation. But others assert that his efforts to pass a countywide smoking ban last summer were the primary cause of his re-election defeat.

No. 7 — Mother Nature slams area twice. Mother Nature was not very kind to residents of the St. Louis area as massive storms twice caused power outages affecting hundreds of thousands of AmerenUE customers. A massive winter storm that hit the area Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 left hundreds of thousands of AmerenUE customers in both Missouri and Illinois without power.

Residents scrambled to stay warm as temperatures plunged into the teens at night, and AmerenUE officials termed this the worst ice storm in Ameren companies’ history.

Many of the same AmerenUE customers were left without power last summer when severe thunderstorms with winds exceeding 90 mph ripped through the area the evening of July 19 and left more than 500,000 AmerenUE customers without power in what officials termed the worst storm in Ameren companies’ history.

No. 8 — Crestwood voters OK tax increase to retire debt. Crestwood voters in April approved Proposition S, a 20-cent tax-rate increase designed to pay off $3.5 million in debt and credit expenses. The tax-rate increase will remain in effect for seven years.

It wasn’t until October that residents learned the tax-rate increase to refinance the city’s debt and line of credit would fund something called an “annual-appropriation note.” While city officials said the annual-appropriation note was not a bond, the city’s financial adviser agreed, but also said the refinancing is “similar” to a bond or certificate of participation.

Interestingly, city voters in April 2005 rejected Proposition 1, a general-obligation bond issue in an amount not to exceed $6 million that would have allowed the city to retire its line of credit, establish reserves sufficient to meet the city’s cash-flow needs and reconcile debts the general fund owes other city funds. Then-City Administrator Don Greer said at the time that issuing $4.732 million in bonds would accomplish those goals. A 24-cent tax-rate increase for 10 years would have been required to retire the bonds.

The bonds that would have been issued if Proposition 1 had been approved unquestionably would have had a lower interest rate than the 5.44 percent interest that the annual appropriation note carries. The city will pay roughly $535,820.36 in interest over seven years to Royal Banks of Missouri for the seven-year, tax-exempt, $2.87 million annual-appropriation note.

No. 9 — Crestwood sees turnover in appointed and elected officials. Crestwood citizens in 2006 saw a turnover of appointed and elected officials the likes of each they’d never seen before.

City Administrator/Police Chief Don Greer retired and was replaced with City Administrator Frank Myers and Police Chief Michael Paillou. Greer had served the city as police chief since 1990 and was named city administrator in 2002, though he continued to serve as police chief.

Also resigning this year was Director of Finance Diana Madrid, who had served the city since March 2003. Other officials who are stepping down are City Clerk Kim Cottle, whose last day is Friday, and Economic Development Specialist Ellen Dailey, whose last day is Jan. 17.

Residents also saw the impact of term limits in last April’s election as then-board President Tim Trueblood of Ward 2 and Ward 1 Alderman Richard LaBore were ineligible to run and four new aldermen were elected. In April, Ward 1 Alderman Richard Breeding and Ward 4 Alderman Pat Duwe will be ineligible to run because of term limits. Stay tuned for who will run this April.

No. 10 — Mehlville School District earns state’s Distinction in Performance. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education announced last month that the Mehlville School District earned the Distinction in Performance Award for academic achievement and progress during the 2005-2006 school year. Earning the Distinction in Performance Award for High Achievement is quite an achievement for the Mehlville School District, especially given the fact that Mehlville had not earned the award since 2003. Before that, the district had earned the Distinction in Performance honor two consecutive years with perfect scores both years.