Fire district’s approved 2010 tax rates certified by Missouri auditor’s office

y MIKE ANTHONY

Executive Editor

The Mehlville Fire Protection District’s 2010 tax rates have been certified by Missouri Auditor Susan Montee’s office.

The district’s Board of Directors voted Sept. 24 to approve a resolution setting the district’s 2010 blended tax rate at 67.1 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. The blended tax rate is not assessed, but is a combination of four tax rates — residential property, commercial property, agricultural property and personal property.

The blended tax rate of 67.1 cents per $100 is 7.8 cents more than the current tax rate of 59.3 cents per $100. The 2010 tax rate is the maximum that can be levied by the district.

Certification letters dated Sept. 30 for the fire district’s four tax levies — general, ambulance, alarm and pension — were sent by Montee’s office to the county collector of revenue. By fund, the blended rates are: general, 39.5 cents; ambulance, 19.5 cents; alarm, 4.3 cents; and pension, 3.8 cents.

“That was great news,” Board of Directors Chairman Aaron Hilmer said of the certification of the district’s 2010 tax rates. “I think it brings to close a couple things. It brings to close what at the time I termed a political stunt by the state auditor’s office and it also brings to close our tax-decrease measures. These have been four years in the making from the time we asked people to decrease their property-tax rate by $10 million a year.

“And what we’ve gone through. We’ve been sued about them. We’ve had to change state law, been sued again and then the auditor’s office tried not to validate our rates. But here we are in 2010 and the rates have been validated and I think it’s a great day for the Mehlville Fire District and also for its residents,” he added.

As first reported by the Call last November, Montee’s office deemed the fire district’s 2009 tax rate to be higher than permitted under state law and referred the issue to Attorney General Chris Koster for further action. In mid-November, MFPD officials met with representatives of Koster’s office and said they were informed the attorney general had no plans to pursue any legal action against the district. The county collector of revenue levied the tax rate approved by the fire district board.

But in late January, the state auditor released a report citing 12 taxing entities, including the Mehlville Fire Protection District, that levied tax rates in excess of what is permitted by law. Montee’s report stated the fire district had levied nearly $10 million more than the amount legally allowed with its tax rate. In February, Koster filed a lawsuit that asked the St. Louis County Circuit Court to determine the fire district’s tax rate.

The lawsuit is pending with a settlement conference scheduled next February.

At issue is the board’s decision in August 2009 to set the fire district’s tax rate at 59.3 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, an amount it contended was the legal maximum it could levy as a result of the passage in April 2009 of two propositions reducing Mehlville’s tax-rate ceiling by 40 cents.

The 2009 tax rate was 3 cents more than the previous year’s tax rate of 56.3 cents, and board members voted to roll up the tax rate to collect the same amount of revenue as the previous year under the provisions of the Hancock Amendment.

However, Montee contended that because the board voted in August 2008 to levy a tax rate less than the district’s tax-rate ceiling of $1.052, Mehlville’s ceiling was reduced to 56.3 cents under the provisions of Senate Bill 711. Under SB 711, a tax rate set in a nonreassessment year becomes the tax-rate ceiling in a reassessment year.

As a result, the tax-rate-ceiling reduction of 40 cents approved by voters as Proposition 1 and Proposition 2 in April 2009 set the district’s tax-rate ceiling at 16.3 cents, according to the state auditor.

Proposition 1 asked whether the district’s general-fund tax-rate ceiling should be permanently reduced by 36 cents per $100 of assessed of valuation while Proposition 2 asked whether the district’s pension-fund tax-rate ceiling should be permanently reduced by 4 cents per $100.

Proposition 1 and Proposition 2 were put before district voters after withstanding a legal challenge from Concord resident Dennis Skelton, who filed a lawsuit seeking to remove the measures from the April 7, 2009, ballot. But St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge Sandra Hemphill ruled the fire district had the legal authority to place the measures on the ballot, citing provisions enacted as part of SB 711, which was signed into law in July 2008 by then-Gov. Matt Blunt.

An earlier effort by the fire board to allow voters to decide whether to reduce the district’s tax-rate ceiling was unsuccessful.

Hilmer and board Treasurer Bonnie Stegman voted in January 2007 to place Prop TD, or Tax Decrease, on the April 3, 2007, ballot. But Skelton filed a lawsuit Feb. 7, 2007, seeking the removal of the tax-rate-decrease measure from the ballot. Skelton, who ran as a write-in candidate for the fire district board in April 2007, was defeated by Ed Ryan, who now serves as board secretary.

In a Feb. 9, 2007, ruling, Judge James R. Hartenbach ordered the Board of Election Commissioners to remove Proposition TD from the April 3, 2007, ballot.

Hilmer previously termed the situation with the fire district’s tax rate “a one-year anomaly.”

“Certainly the facts have vindicated, but more importantly validated what I said. It was a one-year anomaly and certainly at the time the usual suspects tried to spin this in a negative light to hurt the district, to make the Board of Directors look bad,” he said Friday. “They’ve all failed and we’ll put this behind us and move on …. This has withstood every challenge. For the residents of the fire district, that’s $10 million in taxes that can never be levied on them …

“And we have withstood every conceivable challenge and this is pretty much the last one. So we’re really excited about it.”

As for Koster’s suit, Hilmer said he anticipates it will be “resolved amicably.”

“… It certainly bodes well for it for a couple of reasons … This shows what I said last year was correct. This was a one-year anomaly. This has totally been contained in 2009,” he said. “And remember, in the AG’s lawsuit they did not ask the courts to refund the money from ’09 and I think this even adds to our case that we were correct in what we levied … Last year the state auditor’s office was saying we could take zero cents in some of our funds and this year they’re saying it’s OK to take millions of dollars. I think that just shows what a political stunt it was.

“It really is gratifying to know that we’ve spent four years trying to get these tax-decrease measures passed and to know that we’ve finally put them to bed. The only issue is this lawsuit from the ’09 rates, which we feel will be resolved amicably in the future with the AG’s office.”