Judge dismisses fire district’s lawsuit against county

Lemay requesting $715,600 from county in June 18 letter.

By MIKE ANTHONY

A St. Louis County Circuit Court judge last week dismissed a lawsuit filed against St. Louis County by the Lemay Fire Protection District that sought a share of a public-safety tax being paid by the River City Casino.

Judge Barbara W. Wallace on June 15 granted the county’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which had been filed by the fire district’s Board of Directors in March, shortly after the River City Casino opened. Pinnacle Entertainment opened the new 90,000-square-foot casino at 777 River City Casino Blvd. on March 4.

The suit, filed March 12, alleged St. Louis County “has refused to share the public-safety tax with the Lemay Fire Protection District.”

River City hired roughly 1,300 workers for the casino, which “is expecting approximately 5,000 people per day,” the lawsuit stated, noting, “… The Lemay Fire Protection District has serious concerns regarding the increase in population and service demands associated with the River City Casino.”

The suit cited the public-safety tax authorized by Missouri statute 313.822, which states, “Each excursion gambling boat shall designate a city or county as its home dock. The home dock city or county may enter into agreements with other cities or counties … to share revenues obtained pursuant to this section. The home dock city or county shall receive 10 percent of the adjusted gross-receipts tax collections, as levied pursuant to this section, for use in providing services necessary to the safety of the public visiting an excursion gambling boat.”

The county’s motion to dismiss the suit contended, “… Neither the facts nor the law establish that LFPD has a clear, presently existing right to gaming tax revenues …”

In a memorandum in support of its motion to dismiss the suit, Associate County Counselor Cynthia Hoemann wrote that Missouri statute 313.822 “does not say a word about fire districts.”

The memo also stated, “LFPD assumes, without support, the words ‘safety of the public visiting an excursion gambling boat’ is limited to police and fire protection of persons while they are on casino property … The services necessary to protect visitors from harm include such things as safe roads and bridges, snow removal, traffic codes, building codes, health codes, environmental laws, criminal laws, code enforcement and the entire criminal justice system including prosecutors, courts and detention facilities.”

County Counselor Pat Redington told the Call she believed the intent of Missouri statute 313.822 is clear.

“… The statute said that the county gets the money and needs to use it to provide for safety, and that’s what we’re going to do. That doesn’t provide for anything to go to a fire protection district directly …,” she said.

Redington noted Lemay will receive additional revenue through increased property taxes from the new casino.

“… If they show a need for money as a result of services to the casino, then we’re open to looking at that and seeing if we need to provide money for that, but so far we haven’t seen anything or had any reason to think that excursion boat is causing any increase in fire-protection needs that wouldn’t be covered by the increase in property taxes,” she said.

Lemay officials said they filed the lawsuit after attempting for roughly two years to reach some sort of agreement with the county to share the proceeds of the safety tax. They say that district residents should not have to bear the entire cost of providing additional service to the new casino.

Lemay officials met Feb. 1 with county officials, including Redington and Chief Operating Officer Garry Earls. In a Feb. 5 letter, Earls wrote, “I understand that the fire district will receive a substantial increase in revenue from property taxes due from the new facilities built by Pinnacle.

“As you determine the new requirements for fire and ambulance services that may drive your future service costs and should you determine a shortfall exists regarding the district’s ability to meet those service requirements, we are willing to discuss the financial requirements to meet the district’s obligations.”

Treasurer Jack Bettag told the Call that the Lemay board contends “the safety tax is for the citizens’ safety attending the casino and so that the citizens of the area don’t have to bear those expenses, and unfortunately the county doesn’t see it that way …”

Noting the county contended public safety encompasses a broad spectrum of services, board Secretary Jerry Schloss said, “Their interpretation is so wide ranging. They talk about everything from environmental laws to building-code laws to the justice system, to prosecutors, bridges. I don’t think that was the intent of the legislation, but the way the legislation is written according to the judge, it’s basically their decision on how they see fit to spend that money. So we’re sort of between the rock and the hard spot.

“We think we ought to have the opportunity to decide how we spend some of that safety money and they don’t see it that way …”

Bettag and Schloss said the board hasn’t made a final decision on whether to appeal, but board Chairman David Meyer has sent a letter to Earls requesting $715,600 to provide additional ambulance and fire services “due to the increase of calls and to be prepared for catastrophic incidents related to River City.”

Meyer’s June 18 letter also states, “We feel the citizens of the Lemay community should not be required to bear this burden from the ordinary taxes sources. We have identified and are asking for the payment of only the basic additional expenses we will incur to provide for the safety of the patrons of the casino. This request will allow us to add an additional ambulance and crew to service …”

Redington said county officials would review the district’s request.

“We’ll certainly review that, but again they do get quite a bit of new money as a result of the boat and that comes through their property taxes …,” she said.

Addressing the reason for the delay in responding to Earls’ Feb. 5 letter, Bettag said, “I’d have to say from our perspective the reason is because we never anticipated running up against a solid brick wall that Garry has set up. We really thought we were going to deal in a business-like manner and that didn’t happen. I mean we had pretty much been stonewalled and finally got that meeting with them and then he (Earls) sent back that letter. And after that we thought, well, surely, OK fine. If that’s the way you feel about it, we’ll go another route and we really thought we were going to get some relief through the legal process and were really surprised when the judge came back with the finding that she did.

“There’s no argument that the county’s the dock city — absolutely no argument. The argument comes in then as to the distribution of that 4-plus million dollars a year that (County Executive Charlie) Dooley and Garry Earls want to keep in the county coffers. And we’re saying a little bit, anyway, ought to come for what it says in the statute — for the safety of the patrons.”