Mehlville fire district’s 2006 surplus greater than originally anticipated

Projected surplus jumps from $1.54 million to $3.4 million

By MIKE ANTHONY

A revised fiscal 2006 budget that projects a surplus of roughly $3.4 million — $1.85 million more than originally anticipated — was adopted last week by the Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors.

The Board of Directors voted unanimously Dec. 13 to adopt the revised 2006 budget that projects expenditures of $15,872,730 and revenue of $20,950,309.

Excluding $1,676,239 collected for the district’s pension fund, which is the subject of a pending lawsuit, a $3,401,340 surplus is projected on Dec. 31 — the end of the fiscal year.

The revised 2006 budget projects expenditures roughly $3.4 million less than in the original budget adopted in December 2005 with revenues nearly $100,000 more than originally anticipated.

The original 2006 budget, which was adopted in December 2005, projected total expenditures of $19,302,862 with anticipated revenue of $20,851,963 — a surplus of $1,549,101.

In setting the tax rate for 2006 in August 2005, the Board of Directors voted to levy only four cents of a voter-approved 33-cent tax-rate increase, but reduced the alarm-fund tax rate by four cents.

Voters in November 2004 approved Proposition S — a 33-cent tax-rate increase designed to address the fire district’s needs for the next five years.

But board members voted 2-1 in August 2005 to establish the tax rate at 86 cents per $100 — instead of $1.19 — with Chairman Aaron Hilmer and Treasurer Bonnie Stegman in favor and Secretary Dan Ottoline opposed.

Regarding the greater-than-anticipated surplus in the revised 2006 budget, Hilmer told the Call, “As I look at it, I didn’t know what was more shocking, the fact that we didn’t levy the 33 cents and had a $3.5 million surplus, or the fact that if we would have levied it, it would have generated an additional $6.7 million in revenue. That’s $10 million that would have been gobbled up by the greatest entitlement program south county’s ever seen.

“One thing I want to address that I think residents should be asking, though, is: Does this surplus exist because we’re ignoring our infrastructure in order to pad our bottom line? And the answer is absolutely not,” he said. “In the past year, we’ve built a new firehouse, bought a new fire truck, two new ambulances, two new staff cars and upgraded a slew of medical equipment that Deputy Chief (EMS) Craig Walk advised us on after coming on board. All paid for with cash and all things that were pushed aside in the past as the old board was more concerned about 73 days off a year for the fire chief or a $950 check at Christmas time for the office staff to buy presents — I mean clothing allowance.

“The one thing Bonnie and I have never understood is why people who work for the community should receive pay packages and benefits so much better than the community who provides them,” he added.

For 2006, salary and related costs — such as taxes, benefits and workers’ compensation — are projected at $12,813,599, $635,281 less than 2005’s actual expenditure of $13,448,880. In 2000, those costs totaled $12,067,277.

Asked about the projected salary and re-lated costs for 2006, Hilmer said, “Before we address the present — and the reality is our ’06 personnel costs are lower than they were since the year 2000 — I think we should look at the past. The year 2000 was the first year of a three-year MOU (memorandum of understanding) that the board gave to employees. The document mortgaged the future of the district and brought it to the verge of bankruptcy. What was that board’s solution? Raise your taxes 33 cents, of course — otherwise you were losing services.

“So not only did we not levy the 33 cents, we are now delivering service that’s light years ahead of where we were in 2000. Now there’s a paramedic on every fire truck. Two years ago, there was none.

“We achieved a 200-percent increase in medical coverage with a zero-percent in-crease in cost. You say: How could that be? Simply put, because Bonnie and I are more concerned about the needs of the residents rather than the wants of the employees,” he added.

As an example of serving the needs of residents, the board chairman cited the success of the district’s car-seat program, which was restarted this year after being cut from the budget two years ago.

“We can look at something like car seats — how many hundreds of car seats we put in this year,” Hilmer said. “Two years ago, none. Why? Supposed lack of funds.”

During the Dec. 13 meeting, Ottoline asked Comptroller Judy Kreider about the $1,676,239 collected for the pension fund.

Ottoline noted the revised budget indicated “that nothing was put in the — paid into the pension fund.”

Kreider said, “That’s correct. The money is — it’s being invested rather than putting it over with the pension money because of the standstill that we’re at right now. But it is being invested, and we are earning interest on it.”

In March, the Board of Directors voted 2-1 with Ottoline opposed to change the district’s pension plan from a defined-benefit plan to a defined-contribution plan. Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters has filed a lawsuit challenging the change. That suit is pending.

In other business Dec. 13, the board voted to approve health, dental and vision insurance providers for the district’s employees at a projected cost of $968,828.04 — the district’s lowest cost since 1999.

The board voted 2-1 to have GHP provide health insurance for employees. Ottoline was opposed. GHP is the district’s current provider.

Under the plan adopted by the board, employees will pay slightly more for office visit co-payments and for prescription drugs, resulting in a 9.29-percent increase in premiums to the district.

In separate votes, the board voted unanimously to have Assurant provide dental insurance and to have Vision Service Plan provide vision insurance.

Free health, dental and vision insurance in which the district pays 100 percent of the premiums is offered to employees.

The Board of Directors voted earlier this year to reduce the district-paid percentage of health and dental insurance. The board voted 2-1 last week with Ottoline opposed to reduce the district-paid percentage of vision insurance to 50 percent from 100 percent.

In 2006, the district paid 70 percent of the premiums for medical and dental insurance and 100 percent of the premiums for vision insurance for employees’ dependents. But starting in 2007, the district will pay 50 percent of the cost of dependent coverage for health, dental and vision insurance.