New law ‘speaks for itself,’ judge rules in keeping tax-decrease proposals on Mehlville ballot

Judge: Missouri firefighters union president’s opinion is ‘irrelevant’

Aaron Hilmer

Aaron Hilmer

By MIKE ANTHONY

A new state statute approved in 2008 “speaks for itself,” a judge wrote last week in her order rejecting a legal challenge to two tax-rate-decrease measures placed on the April 7 ballot by the Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors.

St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge Sandra Hemphill twice denied Concord resident and former unsuccessful fire-district Board of Directors candidate Dennis Skelton’s legal efforts to remove Proposition 1 and Proposition 2 from the April ballot.

Hemphill first ruled Feb. 6 that because of the new state statute approved in 2008 by the Missouri Legislature, a fire protection district has the legal authority to place tax-rate-decrease proposals on a ballot.

“… The court finds the language of section 137.073.5(3), RSMo., is clear and unambiguous,” she wrote in her ruling. “The statute expressly states that a political subdivision, such as a fire-protection district, may place a tax-rate ceiling reduction on the ballot …”

Skelton filed the lawsuit Jan. 28 — less than a week after the Board of Directors voted unanimously Jan. 23 to place Prop 1 and Prop 2 on the April 7 ballot. Voter approval of both propositions would save taxpayers nearly $10.5 million per year, according to board Chairman Aaron Hilmer.

Skelton has been a longtime critic of the three-member board — Hilmer, Treasurer Bonnie Stegman and Secretary Ed Ryan — during public-comment periods at Board of Directors meetings and had raised questions Jan. 23 about Prop 1 and Prop 2. Both measures would require approval by a simple majority of voters.

Proposition 1 asks whether the district’s general-fund tax-rate ceiling should be permanently reduced by 36 cents per $100 of assessed valuation while Proposition 2 asks whether the district’s pension-fund tax-rate ceiling would be permanently reduced by 4 cents per $100.

After Hemphill issued her Feb. 6 ruling, Skelton attorney John Goffstein, who also represents Mehlville Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, filed motions seeking a new trial and an injunction to remove Prop 1 and Prop 2 from the April ballot.

After hearing arguments from Goffstein, MFPD attorney Mathew Hoffman and county Election Board of Commissioners attorney Steve Garrett in her chambers Feb. 9, Hemphill rejected Goffstein’s motions, allowing Prop 1 and Prop 2 to remain on the April ballot.

Skelton’s lawsuit named the county election board as well as the Mehlville Fire Protection District as defendants. He is represented by James R. Kimmey and Goffstein of Bartley Goffstein.

In Goffstein’s rejected motion for new trial and injunction, he wrote that the new statute — 137.073.5(3) — is “impermissible ‘special legislation'” and “does not expressly confer upon a fire district the power to so act in the event that it has no such express authority within its own ‘enabling’ statute” of Chapter 321, which pertains to fire protection districts.

But Hemphill wrote in her judgment, “With respect to relator’s (Skelton’s) argument that any necessary, incidental or implied powers of the district are ministerial only, the court finds that even if the district’s authority is ministerial in nature, an argument upon which the court disagrees, the district has a clear directive under the clear and unambiguous language of section 137.073.5(3), RSMo. to proceed. Under that statute, the district is not prohibited from voluntarily levying a tax rate lower than that which is required under the provisions of section 137.073.5(3), RSMo., or from seeking voter approval of a reduction to the district’s tax-rate ceiling.”

In his denied motion for a new trial, Goffstein also contended, “The ballot measure is unconstitutionally vague because it states it is not a rollback measure, when in fact, that is the effect of the proposition.”

But Hemphill disagreed, writing, “The critical test for the sufficiency of a ballot measure is ‘whether the language fairly and impartially summarizes the purposes of the measure so the voters will not be deceived or misled’ … None of the provisions of 321.244.1, RSMo. mandate specific language for the type of ballot measures at issue here. The court has reviewed the language of the propositions and finds them to be in substantial compliance with the ballot form set out in section 321.244.1, RSMo.”

In her judgment, Hemphill also noted that Skelton had sought to present testimony by Sherwood Smith, president of the Missouri State Council of Fire Fighters, about failed legislative efforts to amend Chapter 321 to allow fire protection districts to place tax-rate-decrease measures on the ballot.

“Finally, with respect to relator’s request to present testimony by the president of the Missouri State Council of Fire Fighters on the legislative history of the enactment of 137.073.5(3), the court finds that this witness’ opinion regarding why the Missouri Legislature may have rejected legislation sponsored by respondents is irrelevant to the authority clearly and specifically granted to the district under section 137.073.5(3), RSMo. The statute speaks for itself,” the judge wrote in her ruling.

Asked about Skelton’s unsuccessful legal effort to remove Prop 1 and Prop 2 from the ballot, Hilmer told the Call, “Well, unfortunately, it’s nothing new to us — being sued … We’re pleased that voters will be able to vote to decide where they want to set their tax rate at — if they want to lower it — and this is just one more example of another frivolous lawsuit to throw on the steaming pile of dung that comes out of Local 1889 and the Missouri State Council of Fire Fighters.”

Hilmer said he is unaware of any tax-rate-decrease measure ever being placed before voters.

“… Like so many things that Mrs. Stegman and myself and now Mr. Ryan have done at the district, it’s cutting-edge things — changing the disability plan, switching the pension plans over, the health-savings account, reforming the health insurance and now letting people vote to cut their tax rate.

“What’s interesting is four years ago when Mrs. Stegman and I ran for office, we ran on the platform of rolling back the tax rate. And at the time, people said: ‘Well, you can’t do that. You never can do that.’ Well, here we are four years later and now voters have the chance to make it permanent and that’s what we’re really excited about.”