Mehlville board votes 6-1 to roll up tax rate by 2 cents

Former board president opposes roll-up of school district’s tax rate

By Gloria Lloyd

While acknowledging the continuing economic struggles of some residents of the district, the Mehlville Board of Education rolled up its tax rate by nearly 2 cents last week, reversing last year’s rollback.

In June, the board approved a $110 million budget based on a full roll-up of the two cents, including $5 million in deficit spending that stems from $2.5 million in salary increases for teachers as well as a planned five-year spend-down of the district’s reserves.

The reserve fund is currently at 22 percent, but without budget cuts or a bond issue, it is projected to drop precipitously next year and dwindle to nothing in five years, as the district dips into reserves to fund recurring expenses.

The board voted 6-1 for the roll-up, with Secretary Lori Trakas opposed. In light of the $5 million deficit, she has voted against all extra spending in the district aside from the $41,000 strategic plan consultant who is currently gauging what taxpayers want out of public education in the district as well as what they think about a future bond issue.

After a 3.3-percent drop in assessed valuation last year, the district’s final assessed valuation of $1.66 billion is up 0.4 percent this year, according to information provided to the board by Chief Financial Officer Marshall Crutcher.

The approved tax rate sets the “blended” rate at $3.7819 per $100 of assessed valuation, an increase of nearly 2 cents. The blended rate is not levied but used for state calculations. A $225,000 favorable assessment variance and $367,000 from the two-cent roll-up amount to $600,000 more for the district in tax revenue than last year.

The approved tax rates are $3.7621 for residential, a decrease of 0.0011 cents; $3.6641 for commercial, up roughly 9 cents; $4.0919 for agricultural, up from $4.0710; and $4.0081 for personal property, up from $3.9871.

A motion by Trakas to continue last year’s two-cent tax-rate rollback died for lack of a second.

Assessed valuation in the district spiked in 2007 and dropped in 2008, but has dropped $114 million since 2009, which has contributed to the $5 million deficit, Crutcher noted.

During budget discussions in June, Trakas and Vice President Venki Palamand voted against a teacher agreement that raised salaries an average of 2.4 percent this year, adding $2.5 million in recurring salary expenses to the district’s budget, which was $105 million last year.

Mehlville residents have not yet recovered from the Great Recession and are still struggling to pay their own bills, including at the grocery store, Trakas said.

“If you drive down to Lemay, you can see some of the struggles that go on,” she noted.

Because of declining real-estate assessments last year, taxpayers in the district are already paying $600,000 less to the district than they have in the past, in addition to the $322,000 given back in last year’s two-cent roll-up, which means last year they paid the district $900,000 less in taxes than they have in the past, Palamand said.

Although he agreed that taxpayers have been stagnated economically for more than a decade, Mehlville has the second-lowest tax rate in the region, only higher than Ladue, and needs that $322,000, he added.

“That was $6 per household, so perhaps the households got an additional six heads of lettuce, but realistically it cost the district $300,000 — and all we could have done with that,” Palamand said. “And I think we have an obligation to educate the students to the best of our ability.”

If a taxpayer owns a $200,000 house, the owner will pay 42 more cents to the district this year with the roll-up, board President Ron Fedorchak noted.

“Not everyone has a $200,000 home, Ron,” Trakas replied.

“We’ll just go lower then,” Fedorchak said. “If your house is worth $100,000, you’re only spending 21 cents extra a year to take care of HVAC, to take care of facilities. Giving away $600,000 is not the way to do that.”

“Well, you already did $5 million in deficit spending,” Trakas said.

Communities in the district vary widely in their per-capita average income, ranging from $54,000 in Oakville to $28,000 in Lemay, with an overall average per-capita income of $34,000 in the district as a whole, according to figures Fedorchak cited from the last census.

“I’m a taxpayer here, and I don’t want to pay a lot of taxes, but I want to get bang for my buck,” said board member Jean Pretto. “And I think if I can chip in 42 cents to help the school district this year, I’m going to do it. That’s all I’ve got to say.”

Three residents spoke against the tax-rate increase at the tax rate hearing, with no one in support of it. Lemay Township Republican Committeeman Alan Leaderbrand noted that he has not received a raise since 2008.

Former board President Mark Stoner identified himself as a Mehlville parent before speaking to the board for the first time since stepping down in April, after declining to run for re-election.

“How much is enough? A dollar? Two dollars more? Is there a limit to that?” Stoner asked. “So tonight, I’m asking you to hold the line on taxes and cut the spending back so you balance the budget in the next coming year.”