Judge removes Mehlville fire district’s Proposition TD from ballot

POP founder Skelton files suit against election board, district


A St. Louis County Circuit Court judge last week removed the Mehlville Fire Protection District’s Proposition TD, or Tax Decrease, from the April 3 ballot, but Board of Directors Chairman Aaron Hilmer is unsure why.

A lawsuit filed Feb. 7 by Concord resident Dennis Skelton, founder of Protecting our Protectors, or POP, sought the removal of the tax-rate-decrease measure from the ballot. Skelton’s lawsuit named the county Board of Election Commissioners and the Mehlville Fire Protection District as defendants.

In a ruling issued the next day, Judge James R. Hartenbach ordered the Board of Election Commissioners to remove Proposition TD from the April 3 ballot.

“The court orders that the St. Louis County Election Board is prohibited from placing Proposition TD on the April 3, 2007, ballot in the Mehlville Fire Protection District,” Hartenbach stated in his order.

During a Jan. 3 Board of Directors meeting, Hilmer and board Treasurer Bonnie Stegman voted to place Proposition TD on the April ballot. Because board Treasurer Daniel Ottoline Sr. participated in the meeting by telephone, he was not permitted to vote under the provisions of the state’s Open Meetings and Records Law, also called the Sunshine Law.

The ballot language for Proposition TD stated, “Shall the voters of the Mehlville Fire Protection District decrease the general tax levy available to the district by 45 cents per $100 of assessed valuation? This proposition is based upon the 2006 assessed valuation for the district and equates to a total tax reduction of approximately $9.75 million per year. The foregoing shall not be subject to any tax rate reduction rollback.”

During the Jan. 3 meeting, Ottoline was critical of Proposition TD, questioning whether TD stood for “total destruction” and doubting whether voters would approve a tax-rate increase in the future if the district needed additional revenue.

During a period for public comment, Skelton said he agreed with Ottoline. In 2005, Skelton founded POP, “a concerned group of citizens who support the firefighters and paramedics of the Mehlville Fire Protection District.”

In an accompanying order to the one re-moving Proposition TD from the April 3 ballot, Hartenbach wrote that the fire district shall:

• Remove all references to Proposition TD from its Web site.

• Place on the front page of its Web site a disclaimer stating Proposition TD will not appear on the April 3 ballot.

• Place a copy of the order on the front page of its Web site.

• Post at each firehouse and in every room on district property where any public gathering may occur or meeting take place a notice that Proposition TD will not appear on the ballot along with a copy of the order.

Hilmer told the Call that he doesn’t really understand why Proposition TD was taken off “because the judge never enumerated the reasons. It’s basically: ‘No, you can’t do it and that’s it.’ Because he said so. Due to the late nature of the filing, the day before ballots were going to be printed, we have no choice for recourse.”

He added, “I wish the judge would have written more in his order. All he seemed to do was order it to be taken off the ballot.”

Skelton was represented by attorneys John Goffstein and James R. Kimmey, who also are representing Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters in two lawsuits the union has filed against the fire district’s Board of Directors.

“What we basically argued was that Directors Hilmer and Stegman had exceeded the authority — clearly exceeded the authority that was given to them by the state Legislature …,” Goffstein told the Call. “They had a remedy available to them and that’s in their assessment and levying power, which they totally ignored. It’s not for them to rewrite the Constitution.

“There are specific powers that are enumerated to them under (Missouri Revised Statutes Chapter) 321 and that’s not one of them. And the case law is very clear that if it’s not expressly given to them, then they have no authority to so act and that’s what they ignored,” Goffstein said. “And people tried to tell them that, but they, like usual, they didn’t listen. So they left us little or no choice. Then finally, what they were doing is misrepresenting to the public the intent and the state of affairs of what the measure would call for. You know, people don’t want to be without protection …”

In the petition seeking to remove Proposition TD from the ballot, Kimmey wrote that Chapter 321 “does not authorize the district to submit the proposed ‘decrease’ of the rate of the levy to the voters for approval, and the submission of Proposition TD would contravene the clear limitations of Chapter 321.”

He also wrote that even if the proposition were authorized by Chapter 321, ” The text of Proposition TD is not compliant with any provision of Chapter 321 as to form, in that it is not worded in the manner mandated by any section of Chapter 321.”

Attorney Mathew Hoffman, who represents the fire district, told the Call, “The majority of the board has made it clear that they want voters to have the opportunity to permanently decrease their tax rate.”

He added, “At this time, no decision has been made with regard to the future of Proposition TD.”

In a motion seeking to dismiss Skelton’s lawsuit, the district’s legal counsel wrote that Chapter 321 “provides a procedure for the increase of a levy that has been previously revised or reduced. Implicit in this statute is the power to reduce the levy. In other words, the Legislature would not need to provide a mechanism to increase the levy to the maximum amount after the levy has been reduced unless, in fact, the defendant had the power to reduce the levy in the first place.”

Hilmer and Stegman were elected to the board in April 2005 after running a reform campaign in which they pledged to eliminate fiscal waste and roll back a 33-cent tax-rate increase, Proposition S, that voters had approved in November 2004. Since they took office, the board twice has rolled back the district’s tax rate.

Regarding the removal of Proposition TD from the ballot, Hilmer said, “It’s unfortunate when one lawsuit can prevent 80,000 registered voters from having a chance to give their opinion. And I think I share the same feeling that every resident who has contacted me in the last couple days does — that people are outraged that their opportunity for their voice to be heard has been taken away from them.”

If Proposition TD had been approved by voters, it would have decreased the blended tax rate in the general fund to 43.6 cents from 88.6 cents. The district currently can levy a total blended tax rate up to $1.22; approval of the tax-decrease measure would have set that ceiling at 77.1 cents.

Though the district’s current blended tax rate is 69.8 cents, Hilmer said Proposition TD would have prevented the board from levying the current legal maximum of $1.22.

“… Next year, if two board members would vote for it, the tax rate could be $1.22,” he said. “We’ve been very forthright about it the whole time. Before Bonnie and and I were elected to office, the previous board — all three of whom were endorsed, financed and supported by the firefighters’ union — had set a budget to levy $1.21, roughly $25.5 million they were set to budget. We took immediate action to reduce those numbers and that’s why they are where they are today.

“Here’s why I think this is so disturbing: Not only the fact that the chance for residents to vote on a tax decrease was taken away from them, but that all it takes is two board members to, in effect, increase people’s tax rate by roughly 75 percent, and they would never have any say in that,” Hilmer said.

Skelton has been a frequent critic of Hilmer and Stegman during public-comment periods at Board of Directors meetings, and Hilmer said he has yet to hear any constructive ideas.

“No one associated with this group, be it Mr. Skelton, the firefighters’ union or their mouthpiece, have ever offered any constructive ideas. This action proves again what Bonnie and I have said all along: That this group and the puppets they run for office aren’t interested in improving residents’ lives, only increasing the size of their paycheck. They don’t care about serving the public, only suing the public, and they’re not interested in getting the public’s opinion, only getting their tax dollars.”