Fire district to research placing tax-rate increase before voters

By Karen Callanan

The Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors voted unanimously last week to begin researching the possibility of placing a tax-rate increase before voters.

During the April 1 meeting, Chief Ray Haddock requested permission from the board to begin researching whether the tax-rate increase should be placed on the August or November ballot and how much the district should ask the public to approve.

Board members also heard a proposal by a representative of UNICOM/ARC to facilitate a public engagement process in conjunction with the possible ballot measure.

The board’s last two ballot measures — a 25-cent tax-rate increase in April 2001 and a 25-cent tax-rate increase in August 2002 — were defeated by voters, Haddock noted.

In April 2001, voters narrowly defeated the proposed 25-cent tax-rate increase for the district’s general fund. That proposal, called Proposition 1, received 7,081 “yes” votes — 49.49 percent — and 7,228 “no” votes — 50.51 percent. In August 2002, Proposition F, which sought to increase the district’s tax rate by 25 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, received 7,895 “yes” votes — 36.84 percent — and 13,534 “no” votes — 63.16 percent.

Noting that the district has reached a point where tough decisions about equipment, buildings and manpower must be made, Haddock sought approval from the board to research whether a proposal should be placed on an upcoming ballot, and, if so, how much should be sought. To place a measure on the August ballot, a decision would have to be made by May 25.

“It’s been four years and our comptroller said we’ve cut back quite a bit,” Haddock said.

Earlier during the meeting, the board delayed purchasing a new ambulance — the same purchase that had been delayed a year ago because of budget concerns.

UNICOM/ARC is the same consultant the Mehlville School District used in 2000 for a public engagement process that led to voter approval of Proposition P, at that time a nearly $68.4 million bond issue funded by a 49-cent tax-rate increase.

During his presentation to the board, UNICOM/ARC President Rod Wright noted that the first step to obtaining voter approval of a ballot measure is public opinion research to measure the public’s attitude about an issue.

“… Nothing is more damaging to an organization than losing an election, even if you know you’re going to lose. There’s always a lot of finger-pointing and blame, not to mention the expenditure of time and energy and money running the election …,” Wright said. If the attitude is positive — with a 60 percent threshold favoring the issue — he said, “You kind of put your head down, schedule an election and sprint to the finish line.”

However, Wright noted that if the attitude is not favorable, then UNICOM’s other services may be necessary — public engagement and communications services. Public engagement, he explained, is an empowerment of the public or “civilians” to work on a steering committee, hear presentations from an organization, and work on their own recommendations or solutions from the information they receive.

In most cases, the public’s recommendations are identical to those that the organization’s leadership would recommend, but the grassroots approach helps develop support from the ground up, he said. When proposals come from leadership to the people, or “top-down” in political science terms, Wright said, the public’s first reaction is “at best skeptical.” It often is cynical, and rarely is it openly embracing of what’s going on the ballot, he said.

“… When you present facts and figures to people and give them a lot of information and they discover stuff on their own, it’s a lot more powerful to them than it is than if I’m standing up in front of an audience trying to persuade them,” Wright said. “And more than any other reason, I think that’s the magic of public engagement — getting a lot of people involved and having them wrestle with the same issues that you’re wrestling with, including the price of buying new equipment, and having them try to deal with the same issues in the same manner that you’re doing. And then you get all the related or ancillary communications that go along with that and begin to penetrate out — it can be a very powerful tool to help get you from where you are to where you want to be.”

The key to public engagement is that it takes time. For the process to work right, it may take from four to eight months, he said. Regarding placing the tax-rate increase on the August ballot, Wright said, “Well, if I was going to make that decision, I’d be doing some survey work right now just to see if it should go on that ballot. I wouldn’t want to go to all the time and trouble it takes to do it and literally not have a chance. And I don’t know — without doing survey work, I don’t know. What would concern me is that I heard just in the discussion you had that your track record is not necessarily good.”

Board Chairman Tom O’Driscoll replied that the district already has identified most of the items it needs to address. The district already had a planning committee, comprised of district administrators and members of Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

O’Driscoll said, “I think the main thing that we need to do is do the research that you mentioned, and I guess my question is at the same time, can we not begin some sort of public engagement testing of the water to see if our citizens are interested out there? Because this place has always been an open book and the fact is that people just haven’t come in to look. I have no problem whatsoever with a citizens committee, or at least a citizens component of a committee, to review what we’re looking for and see, indeed, that this is a lifesaving organization of people bending over backward day in and day out to serve the community, and it’s now time for the community to help them maintain the level of service, maintain the level of people on the street every day.

“So I’m not willing to give up on the August date, but I am interested in your helping us and I appreciate what you’ve said, and I’m not willing to give up on that date,” O’Driscoll continued. “So I guess what I’m asking you is if you can begin to fashion something for us?”

Wright again said, “If you’re looking at August, my advice would be, start thinking about that now, do some public opinion research, but be willing to say if that comes back not very positive: ‘We’re not going. We’re not going to go where we can’t bend.’ And if that happens, then commit to a longer-term strategy that may lead to November. That may involve the kind of public engagement activities that I’ve been talking about.”

Near the conclusion of the meeting and the board’s vote to research placing a tax-rate increase on the ballot, O’Driscoll said the board should hear from Wright again, and, in the meantime, reconvene the district’s planning committee.

Board Secretary David Gralike remarked that it also would be important to start developing the key information and data presentations that would be given to the public if the board decides to do the public engagement process.

O’Driscoll said, “I don’t think this fellow (Wright) has any idea how far along we are.”

Gralike said, “As a new member to the board and probably more objective than anyone else in the room, probably due to the fact that I am new, I can tell you that the public engagement process will hopefully lead everyone to the same conclusion … I think it’s important that we involve the public and the citizens of our community to allow them to see it for themselves what our needs are. I think our needs are really obvious and I think they will come to the same conclusion, but I think it’s important that they have that option to see it firsthand.”

The board again will discuss a possible ballot measure and hiring UNICOM/ARC when they meet Monday, April 12.