Mehlville fire district to consider placing tax-rate decrease before voters

Hilmer says proposal is about ’empowering’ district voters

By MIKE ANTHONY

Mehlville Fire Protection District voters in April may consider a ballot measure unlike any they have ever decided — a tax-rate decrease.

Chairman Aaron Hilmer is proposing the Board of Directors place on the April 3 ballot a proposition to permanently reduce the district’s general-fund tax-rate ceiling by 45 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, which would equate to a total tax reduction of roughly $9.75 million per year.

In an exclusive interview with the Call last week, Hilmer said he would present Proposition TD, or Tax Decrease, to the Board of Directors when it meets at 9 a.m. Friday, Dec. 29, in the district’s Training Facility, 11020 Mueller Road. No vote will be taken Friday, Hilmer said, but he hopes the board will take final action early next month to place the proposal on the April ballot.

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 designed to address the fire district’s needs for the next five years.

“I would describe Proposition TD as the denouement, the end of the cycle that voters started 20 months ago when they took a chance on two unknowns who offered them hope — the hope to reclaim their fire district and roll back their tax rate. More specifically, the just-passed 33-cent tax increase known as Prop S,” Hilmer said. “While much has been written and said about Prop S, which I have repeatedly called the greatest sham ever laid on the voters of south county, it’s clear that Prop TD goes above and beyond Prop S. Not only does it eradicate the 33-cent increase, it also eliminates another 12 cents of levy. That’s an additional 36-percent reduction.

“In order to reconcile Prop TD to Prop S, I think this little vignette sums it up pretty well: On Election Day, April 5, 2005, as my wife was holding a sign outside of a polling place, she was confronted by a Mehlville firefighter, who, as voters would walk by, he would point at her while yelling at the voters: Don’t believe the tax-rollback lies. After 20 months of evidence, it’s clear that firefighter was indeed half right. There was a lot of lying going on, and it was all coming out of the mouths of district employees and the board members they worked so hard to get elected,” he said.

In August, the Board of Directors voted unanimously to set the district’s fiscal 2007 tax rate at 69.8 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.

The “blended” fiscal 2007 tax rate — a combination of the district’s separate tax rates for residential, agricultural, commercial and personal property — of 69.8 cents per $100 of assessed valuation is 42.8 percent less than the legal maximum of $1.22 per $100 the district could levy and 18.4 percent less than the previous tax rate of 85.5 cents per $100.

In doing research leading up to Proposition TD, Hilmer said, “… I’ve found that in the past 19 years, voters who reside in the boundaries of the Mehlville Fire Protection District have been asked a cumulative total of 94 times to approve some sort of additional taxation.”

He enumerated the following proposals placed before voters since April 1988:

• St. Louis County — 27 times.

• Mehlville School District — 15 times.

• Sunset Hills — 13 times.

• Lindbergh School District — 11 times.

• State of Missouri — 11 times.

• St. George — seven times.

• Green Park — six times.

• Mehlville Fire Protection District — four times.

“This mountain of evidence makes it clear that people in government view your wallet as a one-way highway from you to them,” Hilmer said. “They act as if they know how to spend your money better than you do. The vast majority of these ballot issues are always accompanied by some sort of emotional plea such as ‘it’s for the kids.’ ‘It’s for your safety.’ ‘It’s for this.’ ‘It’s for that.’ My question is: Who is for you, the resident? The business owner? And for the retiree? You certainly didn’t envision retirement as an endless string of pleas for more taxes to eat away your fixed income.”

Asked how voter approval of Proposition TD would impact both the quality and level of services provided by the district, Hilmer said, “People wonder, have we mortgaged the future in order to cut taxes in the present? The answer is absolutely no. But let’s look at three critical areas and what’s happened in them in the last 20 months. The first, finances. We’ve built up fund balances to the largest levels in the history of the district — all in an environment of lowering the tax rate 42 percent.

“Our personnel costs are the lowest since the year 2000. And, of course, our reforms to the pension plan that is doling out $750,000 checks to employees who contribute nothing is on hold pending a lawsuit filed by — shockingly — the very same recipients of those outrageous checks, the district employees.

“Second area, infrastructure. We’ve built one new firehouse with plans for a second on the way. We’ve bought three new ambulances, two new fire trucks, new support vehicles, new staff cars and upgraded more medical equipment and other accessories than I can list,” Hilmer continued.

“The third area is service. We now only hire people who are cross-trained as firefighters and paramedics. This enabled us to launch our ALS (Advanced Life Support) pumper program. Simply put, now there is a paramedic with their equipment on every piece of apparatus. This has increased our medical coverage by over 200 percent with a cost increase of zero percent.

“We started a child car-seat check program. In the last year, we’ve installed 350 of them. We also started a training program along with a fit-for-duty program and strict drug policy to ensure employees can do the job when residents call 911. And these programs will just keep producing more results as their implementation grows,” he said.

Regarding the cost of placing Proposition TD on the April ballot, Hilmer said the Board of Election Commissioners has estimated it will cost the district $77,000 if an election is conducted in April for the Board of Directors seat currently held by Secretary Dan Ottoline Sr., whose six-year term expires. An election will take place if two or more candidates file.

The cost to add Proposition TD, he said, would be roughly $200.

“So a one-time investment of $200 to re-duce the tax rate by nearly $10 million every year permanently — that’s the best investment anybody’s ever heard of,” Hilmer said. “But let’s compare that $200 to the $225,000 the district spent to propagate Prop S. That’s the kind of money you have to spend when you sell lies.”

Proposition TD is about “empowering” voters, the board chairman said.

“Instead of always hitting them up for more money, this is letting them decide what their tax rate should be. Over 200 years ago, people came here from England to get away from taxation without representation. I really doubt that our forefathers came here so that in 19 years they can get asked 94 times for more taxes,” Hilmer said.

“The voters in the Mehlville Fire Protection District now have the lowest property tax rate of any fire district in St. Louis County — No. 1 out of 24 districts. If we would be levying the legal maximum as the former board and employees longed to, we would be 13th out of 24. When voters cast their ballot April 3 on Proposition Tax Decrease, this will not only be the first time ever they’ve had a chance to permanently reduce their tax levy by nearly $10 million every year, but also make a statement — a statement to other south county and surrounding governments, such as school districts, as to how limited government can and should operate and tell them they are tired of these incessant tax proposals.

“… In the past 20 months, Bonnie and I have slammed the lid to the toy box shut. This is the voters’ opportunity to forever throw away the key,” Hilmer said.