Mehlville fire board to consider putting two tax-decrease proposals on April ballot

New law allows board to put tax-decrease issues before voters

By MIKE ANTHONY

Specific numbers for two tax-rate-decrease proposals will be presented to the Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors later this month by Chairman Aaron Hilmer.

During a Board of Directors meeting last week, Hilmer said the board would vote by mid-January on whether to place two tax-rate-decrease proposals on the April 7 ballot.

Hilmer told the Call he will ask the board to put before voters a proposal to permanently reduce the district’s general-fund tax-rate ceiling and a proposal to permanently reduce the district’s pension-fund tax-rate ceiling.

“I don’t have final numbers yet,” Hilmer said Friday. “It’s going to be comparable to what we had previously wanted to ask voters for in April of 2007 before a judge removed it from the ballot, but this time we’re going to ask for a tax decrease in the general fund and also in the pension fund. By late December, I’ll have those numbers for the board to begin to consider and we’ll vote on them in mid-January to place them on the April 7 ballot.”

Hilmer’s comments about placing two tax-rate-decrease proposals before voters were made at the Nov. 24 board meeting during a discussion of the cost of health-care benefits for district employees for 2009.

Hilmer and Bonnie Stegman were elected to the Board of Directors 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.

The 36.5-percent tax-rate increase was formulated by the Fire District Advisory Committee for Tomorrow’s Emergency Services, or FACTS, during a two-month public-engagement process and was de-signed to address the fire district’s needs for the next five years.

“… In 2004, the previous Board of Directors told the public they needed a five-year, $36 million tax increase that after five years would be exhausted and then the need for another (five-year, tax-rate increase),” Hilmer said. “One of the reasons they needed that large sum of money, they projected that in 2009 after 19-percent annual increases, our health insurance premium at Mehlville Fire District would be $4,036,937.

“In 2005, … Bonnie Stegman reviewed and reformed the health-care plan in Mehlville in order to bring it into line with current trends in the private sector and also more importantly with what the public who pays the bill here receives for their health benefits … The amount that was supposed to be $4,036,937 will be less than a million dollars for renewing our health insurance for 2009,” he said.

“After seeing such a wide discrepancy in numbers, one has to ask: ‘How is that possible?’ So we want to look back a little bit. It becomes clear that the system was broken. When everything is given for free, a gold-card plan is given, there is no incentive on the employees’ angle to make wise health decisions, lifestyle decisions, et cetera. But this definitely is not a knock on the employees because they were only participating in a system that was broken. We turned the system into one that would be more pro-active, where employees became stakeholders and they would see benefits for making those wise health and lifestyle decisions …,” the board chairman said.

Looking to the future, Hilmer said, ” … After we review the number, the staggering amount of $4,036,937, it becomes clear that in 2004 voters were sold a bill of goods by the then-Board of Directors. It becomes clear they were either utterly incompetent or flat out lying to the public in their need for more money. The above example will make an interesting data point for voters to ponder when the board votes to place two tax-decrease proposals on the April ballot …”

As Hilmer noted, the board previously had voted to place a tax-rate-decrease measure on the ballot, only to have it challenged in court and removed by a judge.

In January 2007, Hilmer and Stegman, who serves as board treasurer, voted to place Proposition TD, or Tax Decrease, on the April 3, 2007, ballot.

Then-board Secretary Dan Ottoline participated in the meeting by telephone and was unable to vote under the provisions of the Missouri Open Meetings and Records 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.”

Concord resident Dennis Skelton filed a lawsuit Feb. 7, 2007, seeking the removal of the tax-rate-decrease measure from the ballot.

Skelton, who ran as a write-in candidate for the fire district Board of Directors in April 2007, was defeated by Ed Ryan, who now serves as board secretary.

In a ruling handed down Feb. 9, 2007, Judge James R. Hartenbach ordered the Board of Election Commissioners to re-move Proposition TD from the April 3, 2007, ballot.

Because Hartenbach did not provide any legal reason for removing Proposition TD from the ballot, state Rep. Walt Bivins, R-Oakville, requested a legal opinion in June 2007 from then-Attorney General Jay Nixon about whether “a fire protection district within the state of Missouri may vote to reduce its current tax-rate ceiling.”

But in a Sept. 4, 2007, letter, Deputy Attorney General Karen King Mitchell cited Hartenbach’s ruling and told Bivins that the Attorney General’s Office “must decline to provide the opinion you request.”

Her letter stated, “In an order dated Feb. 9, 2007, the St. Louis County Circuit Court prohibited the St. Louis County Election Board from placing such a proposition on the April 3, 2007, ballot in the Mehlville Fire Protection District … Because the issue has been decided by a circuit court, we must decline to respond to your request.”

Bivins introduced two bills during the past legislative session that sought to allow a political subdivision to place a tax-rate-decrease measure before voters, but neither was successful.

However, as a result of legislation signed in July by Gov. Matt Blunt, the Board of Directors now has the authority to place tax-rate-decrease measures before voters.

That legislation, Senate Bill 711, was sponsored by former Senate President Pro Tem Michael Gibbons, R-Kirkwood.

Hilmer told the Call that board members are looking forward to putting the two tax-rate-decrease proposals before voters.

“… We can’t wait to get it in front of them,” he said.