Long-range planning slated by fire district

By Karen Callanan

The Mehlville Fire Protection District’s Board of Directors has approved a contract with UNICOM/ARC to engage the public in long-range planning that could result in a ballot recommendation to be considered by the board.

The three-member board — Chairman Tom O’Driscoll, Secretary David Gralike and Treasurer Dan Ottoline Sr. — voted unanimously April 19 to approve the contract, which includes a public-opinion telephone survey that will cost nearly $15,000 and a professional fee of $20,000 to help the district organize “engagement meetings.”

As planned, the engagement meetings will include a citizens’ committee to oversee the development of a recommendation, planning workshops and the establishment of a volunteer network to lay the foundation of support to implement the plan.

The goal of UNICOM/ARC’s work will be to educate the public about the benefits of possible solutions to the challenge of providing optimal fire and emergency medical service for its population, especially if additional funding is necessary for construction, renovation and/or operational issues, according to the company’s proposal.

District Comptroller Jeff Geisler presented the board with a memorandum that calculated the district’s general fund budget for 2004, including amendments to the original budget that was approved in December.

“In looking at it, I strictly looked just at the general fund, which is really the only fund that we really have any operating needs, and in incorporating all the known amendments that need to be made and looking at the costs that might be affiliated with accepting a contract, there is still a surplus for the year being generated for 2004, meaning that our revenues still exceed our expenditures for the year,” Geisler told the Board of Directors.

Board Treasurer Dan Ottoline Sr. asked Geisler why he listed the UNICOM/ARC budget addition as only $23,000, and Geisler explained that would be the general fund’s share of the total expense.

“Some of the costs would be associated with the ambulance and some equipment needs, if in the event that we accepted a contract there would be some equipment needs for the ambulance fund, so some of those overhead-type items have been allocated to the ambulance fund,” Geisler explained.

“In total, what I incorporated was a total of the contract amount and also $29,000 for estimated election fees,” he added.

The comptroller said he was strictly outlining the general fund because the district is not facing any “funding crisis per se” in the ambulance fund.

Included in the amendments were grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency totaling more than $102,000 as well as the $1.15 million the district was paid by the Missouri Department of Transportation for its No. 1 house at 7409 S. Lindbergh Blvd.

The property was sold earlier this year to make way for improvements planned by MoDOT at the intersection of Lindbergh Boulevard and Lemay Ferry Road. MoDot will improve the intersection by adding dual left-turn lanes and dedicated right-turn lanes at all approaches of the intersection.

Construction, which will cost an estimated $2.25 million, will begin in July and is expected to be completed by late 2005.

Total fiscal 2004 expenditures were estimated at $10,027,684 in the general fund, while revenues were estimated at $10,488,153 — with an excess of $460,469 in the general fund.

The fiscal 2004 budget approved in December listed general fund total expenditures at $10,354,112, offset with $10,438,326 in revenues, for a surplus of $84,214 at the end of 2004.

While new additions were not shown regarding the ambulance fund, its total expenditures in the originally approved budget were $5,314,624, resulting in a surplus of $763,851 at the end of 2004.

The approved fiscal 2004 budget projected $19,458,263 in total revenues and $18,331,311 in total expenditures with an excess of nearly $1.127 million in revenues.

UNICOM/ARC will begin the public opinion telephone survey immediately, which will take about a month to complete, according to an April 9 letter UNICOM/ARC President Rod Wright wrote to Chief Ray Haddock.

“… As we discussed, the essential first step is conducting the public opinion research. The results of the survey are critically important to making decisions about strategy,” Wright’s letter stated. “Given your recent electoral history, though, it is very likely that some type of engagement program will be essential. For that to be completed in time for a November election, we must move quickly.”

The board’s last two ballot measures — a 25-cent tax-rate increase in April 2001 and a 25-cent tax-rate increase in August 2002 — were defeated by voters.

In April 2001, district voters narrowly defeated the proposed 25-cent tax-rate increase for the district’s general fund. That proposal, called Proposition 1, received 7,081 “yes” votes — 49.49 percent — and 7,228 “no” votes — 50.51 percent.

In August 2002, Proposition F, which sought to increase the district’s tax rate by 25 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, received 7,895 “yes” votes — 36.84 percent — and 13,534 “no” votes — 63.16 percent.

“If we start the engagement meetings in mid-May, it is possible to have six or seven meetings of the large committee between mid-May and the end of August — when the board must vote to schedule a November election — without having meetings every week — which is very difficult not only for the planning group and the district, but for the participants as well,” Wright’s letter stated.

“Remember that the real value in our program is the involvement of a large number of people over a significant period of time,” the letter continued. “The process is very much data and information driven, requiring time for people to process the information. People have to have time to be comfortable with the information and know they are developing the ‘right’ plan for the future of the district.”

Ongoing communication is a major component of the public-engagement process, according to Wright.

“Not only must participants have time to process the information, there must be time for your constituency to read about, hear about and see the same information that is being processed by the participants,” Wright’s letter stated. “No final plan has value unless it is supported by your constituency. It is our goal, and I think your goal also, that you not only have a good plan, but a plan that your constituency also believes is the right plan.”