News Analysis: Voter approval of fire district’s Prop 1, Prop 2 Call’s top story of 2009

Readers can expect more to come in 2010 from some of ’09’s top stories

By MIKE ANTHONY

Despite the economic turmoil that marked 2009, some governmental entities couldn’t resist going to the polls to seek voter approval of a tax-rate increase.

That’s what makes the actions of the Mehlville Fire Protection District so notable. In a first for voters statewide, the MFPD Board of Directors placed two tax-rate-ceiling-decrease proposals on the April ballot.

Voters’ overwhelming approval of both measures will save taxpayers nearly $10.5 million per year, according to Board of Directors Chairman Aaron Hilmer.

Needless to say, that historic vote was a no-brainer for the Call’s No. 1 story of 2009.

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

Voter approval of the two measures reduced the fire district’s tax-rate ceiling to 65.2 cents per $100 of assessed valuation from $1.052, according to Hilmer.

No. 2 — County voters approve new sales tax to fund countywide emergency communications improvements.

In November, county voters approved a new, 0.1-percent sales tax that will fund $100 million in countywide emergency communications improvements. Roughly 68 percent of voters supported Proposition E-911.

The new sales tax will fund an $80 million countywide interoperable digital radio system that allows all police, firefighters, ambulance, public works personnel and other emergency service workers to communicate with each other at a disaster scene.

The new sales tax — which has no sunset date — is expected to generate an ongoing revenue stream of roughly $16 million a year. At 0.1 percent, an individual will pay 10 cents tax on a $100 purchase. However, legislation prefiled Dec. 1 by Sen. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay, would halt collection of the 0.1-percent sales tax five years after its Jan. 1 effective date. Once the sales tax ends, the county would “be permanently barred from imposing or reauthorizing such tax,” according to the bill, which also calls for exempting food purchases from the tax.

No. 3 — Smoking ban approved by county voters.

In November, county voters approved the Indoor Clean Air Code that will go into effect early in 2011. Roughly 65 percent of voters approved Proposition N on Nov. 3.

When it goes into effect Jan. 2, 2011, the smoking ban will prohibit lighting up in enclosed public places but will exclude casino floors, bars where food makes up no more than 25 percent of gross sales, Lambert-St. Louis International Airport’s smoking lounges, private residences, private nursing-home rooms, private clubs, cigar bars and performers who smoke on stage as part of a production.

The ban also triggers a similar smoke-free ordinance in St. Louis city.

No. 4 — County Council places Metro sales tax on ballot.

The County Council voted 4-3 last month to place a half-cent transit sales tax hike on the April 6 election ballot. If the proposition succeeds, the new sales tax would generate some $75 million annually for the Metro transit agency, depending upon the economic climate. The tax contains no sunset provision, meaning the county would collect it indefinitely.

In November 2008, more than 51 percent of county voters rejected Proposition M, a proposed 20-year, half-cent sales tax that would have generated an estimated $80 million per year to be evenly split between MetroLink light-rail expansion to Florissant and Westport and Metro operations.

No. 5 — Legal battles continue over county’s trash districts.

Three lawsuits against the county challenging its trash district program are pending, including one in federal court.

American Eagle Waste Industries, Meridian Waste Services and Waste Management of Missouri sued the county in May 2008, claiming it violated state law by failing to issue a two-year notice to waste haulers before establishing eight trash districts in unincorporated areas. That case will go to trial Jan. 10, 2011, in U.S. District Court.

In September, a class-action lawsuit was filed in St. Louis County Circuit Court against the county and the three waste haulers it contracted in 2008 to exclusively serve eight trash districts in unincorporated areas. Representing residents and other county property owners, the plaintiffs want haulers Allied Waste, IESI and Veolia Environmental Services to repay all the fees they’ve collected since they began servicing the trash districts.

In the third lawsuit, American Eagle Waste and county residents Brett Buchanan and Greg Porter claim the trash districts were improperly established because the matter was not brought to a public vote. The plaintiffs claim the County Charter requires such a vote. County officials say they established the trash districts as a way to standardize service and reduce costs through competitive bidding. They maintain the districts were established legally.

No. 6 — Lindbergh Board of Education, teachers reach agreement.

The Lindbergh Board of Education voted unanimously Nov. 10 to approve a three-year agreement with the Lindbergh National Education Association, ending a somewhat tumultuous 10-month negotiation process.

LNEA members had endorsed the agreement by a 6-to-1 margin Oct. 29.

No. 7 — Macy’s closes at Crestwood Court.

A January announcement that Macy’s at Crestwood Court would close by April 1 had Crestwood officials proposing additional cuts to the 2009 budget to offset the loss of sales-tax revenue. The closing of Macy’s left Crestwood Court with one anchor, Sears, after the October 2007 closing of Dillard’s.

While plans for the redevelopment of the mall have yet to materialize, Crestwood Court is home to a thriving art community. ArtSpace, a partnership between the mall and the Regional Arts Commission, is a 400-plus collection of local artists that is the first of its kind in the country.

No. 8 — Lindbergh voters approve Proposition L.

Lindbergh Schools voters in November overwhelmingly approved Proposition L, a waiver of the state’s Proposition C sales-tax rollback. Proposition C is a 1-cent statewide sales tax dedicated to education funding. Half of the revenue collected is divided among the state’s public school districts and the other half is returned to taxpayers in the form of a property-tax rollback unless district voters have approved a waiver of that rollback.

However, because Lindbergh’s operational tax rate is the state-required minimum of $2.75 per $100 of assessed valuation, voter approval of the rollback waiver will not have any financial impact. But if the Board of Education decides to seek a tax-rate increase at some point in the future, the rollback waiver will come into play. Without the waiver, Lindbergh officials would have had to seek a tax-rate increase greater than what is needed.

No. 9 — Mehlville Fire Protection District constructs new firehouse.

An open house for the Mehlville Fire Protection District’s new No. 2 firehouse at 5434 Telegraph Road in Oakville was conducted in June. Construction of the new station was completed in March. Fire/medics moved into the new facility in late April from the old firehouse, built in 1957, at 5610 Telegraph Road.

Mehlville’s new 6,554-square-foot firehouse is an energy efficient building. Built with three engine bays, it was designed for future expansion, if necessary. The new firehouse was built without a tax-rate increase or bond issue.

No. 10 — State auditor declines to certify tax rates of two south county taxing entities.

In October, State Auditor Susan Montee deemed the Mehlville Fire Protection District’s fiscal 2010 tax rate of 59.3 cents to be noncompliant with state law and referred the issue to Attorney General Chris Koster.

The MFPD board voted to set the district’s tax rate at 59.3 cents, an amount it contended was the legal maximum it could levy as a result of the April passage of two propositions reducing Mehlville’s tax-rate ceiling by 40 cents. But Montee’s office contended that because the Board of Directors voted in August 2008 to levy a tax rate less than the district’s tax-rate ceiling of $1.052, Mehlville’s ceiling was reduced to 56.3 cents under the provisions of Senate Bill 711. As a result, the tax-rate-ceiling reduction of 40 cents approved by voters set the district’s new tax-rate ceiling at 16.3 cents. But MFPD officials cited the ballot language of the two propositions and disputed the state auditor’s interpretation of SB 711.

During a November meeting with representatives of the Koster’s office, Hilmer and MFPD attorney Matt Hoffman were informed the attorney general had no plans to pursue legal action against the district. The county collector has levied the board-approved tax rate.

Montee’s office also declined to certify the Mehlville School District’s 2009-2010 tax rate. The Board of Education voted in August to increase its “blended” tax rate by roughly 15 cents for the 2009-2010 school year. While the state auditor’s declined to certify the district’s tax rate, it did not refer the matter to the attorney general for possible injunctive relief and the county collector of revenue levied the tax rate approved by the board.

Voters in November 2008 approved Proposition T, which transferred roughly 31 cents per $100 of assessed valuation from the district’s debt-service fund to the operating fund. The measure is designed to generate roughly $5.6 million annually for the operating fund. Proposition T did not increase Mehlville’s overall tax rate, but extended the district’s bonded indebtedness by 15 years — to 2029.

The certification issue stemmed from Proposition T’s ballot language, and Mehlville officials are working with the district’s bond counsel, the auditor’s office and local legislators to draft a legislative solution to the issue.