Hilmer, Stegman look back on first 14 months in MFPD office

First of two parts

By MIKE ANTHONY

After more than 14 months in office, two members of the Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors believe they have kept the promises they made during their election campaign.

Aaron Hilmer and Bonnie Stegman were elected to the Board of Directors in April 2005, defeating then-Chairman Tom O’Driscoll and Secretary David Gralike, respectively. Hilmer and Stegman became the majority of the three-member board, which also includes Dan Ottoline Sr.

During their first night in office — April 18, 2005 — Hilmer and Stegman began making good on their campaign promises, appointing an interim chief and replacing the district’s legal counsel.

“Being the one with the most longevity here and with what’s been going on in the district, I think that I should be chairman, but that’s up to you other members of the board,” Ottoline said that night.

After a brief pause, Stegman nominated Hilmer for board chairman. Hilmer seconded the motion, which was approved with a 2-1 vote — the first of many since then.

The board unanimously selected Stegman as treasurer and Ottoline as secretary.

That same night, board members voted 2-1 to name former Metro West Fire Protection District Chief Jim Silvernail as interim chief at a salary of $100,000 a year, roughly $25,000 less than former Chief Ray Haddock, whose retirement was approved about a week after the election of Hilmer and Stegman. Ottoline was opposed.

Ottoline also voted that night against the hiring of Mathew Hoffman, general counsel of the Lemay Fire Protection District, to replace John Hessel, who had served as the district’s legal counsel for more than 20 years. Hoffman is paid $90 per hour — compared to Hessel’s $215 per hour.

Hilmer and Stegman have experienced many highs and lows since their election in April 2005, beginning the day after the election when Hilmer discovered the back window of his car had been smashed while the vehicle was parked in his driveway.

Without admitting guilt, Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, which had worked heavily against Hilmer and Stegman, agreed to pay for the damage.

A few months later, Stegman was told by her employer, St. Anthony’s Medical Center, that she must resign from the Mehlville board or lose her job as a registered nurse educator. Stegman said in August that hospital officials told her that several paramedics told hospital employees that if she continued to work there, paramedics would take fewer patients to the hospital, refuse to take continuing education classes there and would picket outside St. Anthony’s.

Stegman said that an employee who works in the emergency room told her that the paramedics were from Mehlville.

But then-Local 1889 President Chris Francis said district employees must follow a strict policy regarding transporting patients for emergency care.

“The union has not issued any directive as far as taking or not taking patients from St. Anthony’s,” Francis said last August. “First and foremost is the care of the patient, that’s the greatest priority.”

But St. Anthony’s officials then offered Stegman a new job, shifting her responsibilities so that she no longer would teach continuing education classes for paramedics, but instead focus on education for physicians and nurses at the hospital.

Hilmer and Stegman discussed their first 14 months in office during an interview with the Call last week.

“I think the biggest highlight is that we’ve restored government to what it should be — it’s limited and it’s for the people, not for special-interest groups to suck off the public trough,” Hilmer said. “One of the low lights, I think, is that when I got involved running for the campaign, I was naive. I had this idea of we lived in the greatest democracy in the world — the United States. That if you wanted to see change, you put yourself and your ideas on the line and then if you got elected, you could enact those. But as the facts have borne out, we’re dealing with a group of people who don’t believe in democracy. Once they lose at the polls, they prefer to exert their will by trespassing and disruption of private property, try to take away a woman’s job and constant harassment and lawsuits.

“So that, to me, has been the biggest eye-opener of everything … I ran on a platform of eliminating waste. But once we got elected, I am still blown away by the depth and breadth of the waste that we’ve discovered and continue to discover. Once we started shining the spotlight of truth in the closet, I was amazed at the bones that started rattling and falling out,” he said.

But he is pleased with “the dramatic fashion in which we’ve been able to improve people’s services and to cut their tax rate.”

Speaking of the lows, Stegman said, “… After we got elected, immediately was the windshield thing with Aaron, going after my job and going after my husband’s job.”

Stegman’s husband, John, serves as lieutenant in the Des Peres Public Safety Department. Most of the department’s employees are qualified firefighters, certified police officers and licensed paramedics or emergency medical technicians.

“I mean it was just amazing to me how — I don’t know if this is too strong of a word, but almost an evilness that was out there,” she said. “It was like a real hatred out there and we hadn’t started anything. We really just were going to work to make the department better, streamline things, be more fiscally responsible, bring better services to the residents and just make the department better …”

But Stegman says she is pleased with the hiring of Silvernail as chief and with the hiring of Craig Walk as deputy chief of emergency medical services. Walk previously had served as EMS supervisor for the district.

“He’s come up with some good suggestions of things he wants, equipment that we need that we’ve been lacking for all these years, all the money that’s been spent,” she said of Walk. “Eighty-three percent of our runs are medical calls, and we didn’t have stretchers for 12 years. We had to buy all new stretchers. We had to replace our AEDs (Automatic External Defibrillators). They were all outdated. Now part of that, granted, is the updates with the American Heart Association because there are changes there. But still the equipment we have has outlived its usefulness.

“One of my priorities was getting the firefighter/paramedics. I was just amazed that we didn’t even have them. So that was a priority for me and that helped indirectly with staffing — just a better, more efficient use of manpower and increasing our services. Every truck now has a paramedic on it,” Stegman said, referring to the new advanced life support pumper program.

The hiring of 10 new employees as firefighter/paramedics allowed the district in October to launch the program in which the district’s pumpers now provide advanced life support, or ALS, instead of just basic life support for medical emergencies.

During their campaign, Hilmer and Stegman ran as a team, vowing to roll back a 33-cent tax-rate hike approved in November 2004 and cut what they termed fiscal waste. Particularly, the two took aim at high benefit packages, including 100-percent dependent coverage for medical, dental, and vision insurance and numerous vacation and sick-leave days with full pay.

Shortly after taking office, employee sick leave was cut in half to eight days, rather than 16, for 24-hour employees and 12 days for office employees, rather than 35.

If the days aren’t used, employees get a $1,600 bonus, which would decrease $400 for every sick day used. However, if an employee is suspended or fired, they forfeit the bonus. And Mehlville will no longer pay for unused sick leave.

Overtime pay has been cut from double-time to time-and-a-half for firefighters and 1.68-time pay for paramedics. Plus, employees will no longer be paid overtime unless they physically work overtime. Previously, employees were paid overtime even if they had taken a sick day during that pay period. And by cutting down sick days, overtime days will effectively be cut.

The union president no longer is paid to conduct 12 hours of union business each month. That money now is paid by the union, not taxpayers.

The board also overhauled the district’s employee health insurance benefits by switching brokers and reducing benefit packages designed to save the district an estimated $446,000. In addition, chief officer vacations have been cut by one week and holiday pay for eight-hour employees was eliminated starting this year.

Furthermore, board members cut their own pay from $100 a meeting to $50. The board also has cut the number of meetings per month in half — from four to two.

On June 28, the board voted unanimously to accept the district’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for the fiscal year that ended Dec. 31. The report states a decision to voluntarily roll back the district’s tax rate by levying only four cents of the voter-approved 33-cent tax-rate increase saved taxpayers $4.576 million.

“Beginning in April 2005, the current administration diligently examined the entire operations of the district and adopted innovative cost-saving policies and procedures,” the report states. “By reducing our alarm fund tax levy by four cents and then levying four cents or 13 percent of the Prop S voter-approved 33-cent tax levy in the general fund, we succeeded with no tax increase from last year.

“The four cents is earmarked for future capital outlays. As a result, the original budgeted tax-rate levy of $1.19 was amended drastically to reflect the major voluntary reduction in the property-tax levy to 86 cents,” the report states.

The board voted 2-1 last August to establish the tax rate at 86 cents with Hilmer and Stegman in favor and Ottoline opposed.

The report notes that one budget amendment for fiscal 2005 was adopted by the board. Besides saving taxpayers $4.576 million by reducing the alarm-fund tax levy by four cents and then levying four cents of the voter-approved 33-cent tax levy, “operating transfers out were decreased by $1,333,640 mostly for the same reason.”

Hilmer said, “I think a big highlight is that people can really see what we have done. We ran on an issue-oriented campaign. Then we delivered the results. They can see it when they look at their tax bill. They can see it when they call 911 and they’re underneath an umbrella of medical coverage south county’s never seen the likes of before. They can see it when they come to the firehouse and need to get their car seat inspected for their children. A lot of people run for office on these platitudes of leadership, accountability, blah, blah, blah, but you never see it. I think people can see real, tangible results, and I think that’s why it’s resonated so well with the community and with the feedback that we both have received.”

While they have delivered the promises they made, Hilmer said they also plan to continue to trim waste and improve services.

“Not only accomplished, but we’re going to continue to accomplish,” he said. “It wasn’t a one-time phenom, cutting the tax rate and improving services. As people will see as we progress through this year, those ideas are just going to keep carrying through — more tax cutting, more services improving.”

Stegman wants to purchase updated and improved medical equipment.

“… The ventilators that they’re using in the ambulances are old and outdated, so we want to update those and get new ones. These are all issues Craig Walk brought to us. There’s equipment that we can purchase for the firefighters to tell when they’re fighting a fire, it will tell us early if they’re getting too much carbon monoxide … Even before they realize it or show symptoms, you can use this oximeter,” she said, explaining that the device is placed on a person’s figure and then gives a reading “so we can actually help save their lives and not knowingly go back into the fire or wherever and become overcome.”

The district also will purchase intraosseous needles, she said.

“That’s another tool to access if they can’t get an IV in for people that are in cardiac arrest or in shock, they can get fluids and medicine into the system. It goes into a bone and goes right into the (circulatory) system,” Stegman explained.

Hilmer said, “Bonnie’s looking at a whole cadre of the next generation of medical things, and I can’t wait to vote yes to buy them all.”

Stegman said, “… Eighty-three percent of your calls are medical. That’s where your equipment, your training, your manpower, everything should be focused on that. That’s where you should be expanding and making sure that you have the latest and the best for the community, and we can do that by being fiscally responsible in other areas and streamlining and we’re still able to save money and give you the best at the same time.”

Hilmer said, “When we got elected, roughly 80 percent of the calls were medical related, but we weren’t even utilizing 25 percent of our workforce as paramedics. But that shouldn’t surprise you because in April of ’05 for the first time in 30 years, candidates who weren’t supported by the firefighters’ union were elected to office.”

Next week: Hilmer and Stegman discuss their relationship with Local 1889.