Lemay fire district sues county for share of public-safety tax from River City Casino

By MIKE ANTHONY

The Lemay Fire Protection District Board of Directors last week filed a lawsuit against St. Louis County seeking a share of a public-safety tax being paid by the River City Casino, which opened earlier this month in Lemay.

The suit, filed Friday in St. Louis County Circuit Court, alleges St. Louis County “has refused to share the public-safety tax with the Lemay Fire Protection District.”

County Counselor Pat Redington told the Call Monday county officials had not yet been served with the suit and she could not comment on it because she had not seen it.

Pinnacle Entertainment opened the new 90,000-square-foot casino at 777 River City Casino Blvd. on March 4.

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

The lawsuit cites 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.”

Lemay Fire Protection District officials told the Call they have been attempting for roughly two years to reach some sort of agreement with St. Louis County to share the proceeds of the public-safety tax.

Citing the public-safety tax statute, Board of Directors Chairman David Meyer said, “In this case, since it’s unincorporated St. Louis County, obviously St. Louis County is the dock city. Well, since they do not have a fire protection district in St. Louis County as the city does, we are responsible for all EMS, fire, hazardous material calls, and any issues, of course, since it’s so close to the river …”

From March 1 through March 9, Meyer said his district responded to 16 calls at the casino.

“That being said, our concern is we don’t want to put the burden on our constituents of Lemay. Why should they have to pay for the casino, which is a taxing entity,” he said. “… We’re going to have to bring on another crew, another ambulance crew. We now have a basically million-dollar burden that’s been thrown on us.”

Lemay officials met last June with representatives of the St. Louis County Economic Council to discuss the issue.

“… They asked us to do a survey, which we did, of other fire districts that have casinos in their districts,” Meyer said. “Well, all of them are in municipalities … We did what they asked us to do. We took a lot of time. Our chief, Neil Svetanics, and our captains, went around, called and did a survey on how many calls do they get — how many EMS, how many fire calls, hazardous waste, different incident reports — gathered all that information, documented everything and put it in a packet that we sent over to the St. Louis County Economic Council and the County Council and never heard a word. Not one word.”

The information Lemay officials sent to the St. Louis County Economic Council last August proposed that “for the first year of operation, the proceeds of the safety tax be divided in equal shares among the fire district, county police and county government. After the first year, all parties should then be in a better position to determine actual needs.”

Though Lemay officials believed their proposal was “reasonable,” board Secretary Jack Bettag said, “We never heard anything back from this letter — not a word.”

Meyer said Lemay officials have talked with Sixth District County Councilman Steve Stenger, D-south county.

“Steve’s been good to deal with,” Meyer said. “But that being said, he doesn’t have the support through the St. Louis County Council that he needs. We tried to do an ordinance through him. We had our attorney draft it up and send it to him. He didn’t have the support.”

While Stenger had enough votes for the ordinance to be approved, he did not have enough votes to override an anticipated veto by County Executive Charlie Dooley.

“So that being said, we tried to get a meeting through Charlie Dooley and never heard from him. Finally, we did get a response from (Chief Operating Officer) Garry Earls,” Meyer said, adding that Lemay officials met Feb. 1 with county officials, including Earls and Redington.

“Once again, they were very coy about what they were saying. They were asking us: How much do you expect to get from this safety tax? That’s the million-dollar question that we’re asking you …,” he said. “… We’ve had to keep constantly digging the information, trying to get answers out of them. After two years of us trying be proactive, we just keep running up against a brick wall. So we did make the comment that we never had received any response from the St. Louis County Economic Council and Garry said: We’ll definitely get you an answer.”

In a Feb. 5 letter, Earls cited the public-safety tax statute and wrote, “After reviewing this statute and conferring with legal counsel, it is our opinion that St. Louis County is indeed the ‘home-dock county’ and is therefore responsible for allocating funds in a responsible manner that will best serve the community — the entire community.

“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.”

Regarding the lawsuit, Bettag said, “… I guess the point of law that’s going to be decided is do we really have to come in like little penitent children and ask for our allowance or are we going rightfully to get the tax revenues that the state wrote that statute for and then we’ll decide how to spend it as good stewards. If we’re not good stewards, then we ought to get voted out …”