Prop S ‘greatest sham’ ever put before voters here, Hilmer says

By MIKE ANTHONY

The fiscal soundness of the Mehlville Fire Protection District proves that Proposition S, a 33-cent tax-rate increase approved by voters in November 2004, was “the greatest sham ever laid on the voters of south county,” Board of Directors Chairman Aaron Hilmer said last week.

Hilmer’s comments were voiced Dec. 28, just before he made a motion to adopt a fiscal 2006 budget that projects total ex-penditures of $19,302,862 with anticipated revenue of $20,851,963 — a surplus of $1,549,101. Board members voted unanimously Dec. 28 to approve the fiscal 2006 budget.

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

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 that involved about 100 district residents.

As proposed, the tax-rate increase would be used for replacing older ambulances and medical and fire equipment, keeping district employees’ salaries comparable to other districts, repairing and replacing worn-out buildings and providing up-to-date training for firefighters and paramedics, according to the resolution that placed the measure on the ballot.

But the Board of Directors in August established a “blended” tax rate of 86.5 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, electing not to apply the 33-cent tax-rate increase. The board voted 2-1 to establish the tax rate with Hilmer and Treasurer Bonnie Stegman in favor and Secretary Dan Ottoline Sr. opposed.

Given the projected surplus and other areas of the budget he wants to review, Hilmer said he believes board members should consider the possibility of rolling back the tax rate even more when it establishes the district’s tax rate next August.

Furthermore, he also predicted that be-ginning this month “real reform” would start taking place at the South County Fire Alarm Association, which provides emergency dispatching services. Both Hilmer and Stegman now sit on the South County Fire Alarm Association’s board.

“… Even though the ’06 budget had to be put together in a very compressed time frame, I’m pretty pleased with how it’s turned out. Having said that, I think there’s still many areas of concern that I think will have to be examined and then addressed in the first months of the new year,” the chairman said.

“Some areas I feel that need to be looked at are the $15,000 we’ve set aside for dues and subscriptions. The board needs to see a line-item explanation for what each of these are and the justification for their expenditures. Also, the $56,000 budgeted for employees to go to conferences, this also needs to be looked at and looked at very closely,” he said.

Comptroller Jeff Geisler earlier told the board that he believes a closer look is warranted at the rising cost of computer ex-penses for the district.

“As Jeff (Geisler) alluded to, the $208,000 for computers, this amount definitely needs to be looked at. The board needs to see some answers as to why the expenditures are needed and then also solutions before this is spent,” Hilmer said. “I also feel we’re budgeting on the heavy side for South County Fire Alarm because starting in January, real reform will be happening there also.

“Other areas of interest on the budget — employee welfare has gone from $1.64 million in 2004 to $1.18 (million) in 2006. This is a decrease of 28 percent over two years. Contrast this with the annual 19 percent increases that were sold to voters on Prop-osition S,” Hilmer said, referring to the 19 percent annual increases projected for health insurance as part of Proposition S.

“Now the board’s grip has been tightened on sick leave, overtime and workers’ comp. I believe going forward we should see significant savings, especially in the area of workers’ compensation,” he said. “And this, along with our paramedic/firefighter program, should enable us to determine the optimum level of staffing needed, which I feel then (will) positively im-pact the $10 million we have slated for personnel costs.”

Noting that the 2006 budget contains more than $2.15 million for capital expenditures, Hilmer said, “… Like Bonnie (Stegman) had said, this figure’s been placed in the budget, but the board has not yet approved the bulk of these expenditures.

“In the coming month, I think we need to work with Chief (Jim) Silvernail to prioritize and approve the expenditures as we see fit,” he said. “The thing that jumps out at me the most regarding this $2.15 million is that this number is almost 85 percent higher than the annual amount of capital expenditures that was set aside by Prop-osition S, which we all know was a 36 percent tax hike which this board chose not to levy on residents and businesses.”

Under Proposition S, $3,289,312 was projected to be spent on apparatus and vehicle replacement over five years, while $2,557,580 was projected to be spent on the maintenance and improvement of the district’s facilities — a total of $5,846,892.

“In doing some research, Proposition S set aside $5.84 million for apparatus and capital (expenditures) over a five-year period. Yet over the past year and into the coming one, we have spent and set aside $4.1 million for capital expenditure,” Hil-mer said. “So in two years, we have equaled 70 percent of the Prop S five-year plan and we have instituted the ALS (Ad-vanced Life Support) pumper program, which, when fully implemented, will in-crease paramedic coverage by 270 percent. Amazingly, ALS pumpers were not even part of Prop S.

“We have been able to accomplish all of this without raising taxes one penny. These facts alone will forever cement the reputation of Prop S as the greatest sham ever laid on the voters of south county,” Hilmer said. “This was sold to residents under the facade as the difference between life or death. But now Prop S can be clearly seen for the hoax that it was.

“The question that is begging to be answered is where and how was the $32.6 million going to be spent? And as I look at the last line item on the budget with all the areas we have discussed and we are still ending up with an over $1.5 million surplus. Knowing that there are still other areas we have discussed but not yet taken action on, I believe this board needs to cast our eyes toward August for the possibility of rolling back the tax rate even further,” he said.

If the Board of Directors had applied the 33-cent tax-rate increase from Proposition S when it set the tax rate last August, district residents would have had to pay $1.194 per $100 of assessed valuation.

The 33 cents would have generated an additional $6.6 million annually in tax revenue for the district.