Suit seeks removal of tax-decrease measures from ballot

Mehlville fire district attorney says new law permits ballot proposals

Dennis Skelton

Dennis Skelton

By MIKE ANTHONY

A Concord man has filed suit to remove two tax-rate-decrease propositions placed on the April 7 ballot by the Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors.

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

A hearing on Skelton’s lawsuit was scheduled Tuesday afternoon — after the Call went to press.

Skelton was an unsuccessful write-in candidate for the fire district’s Board of Directors in April 2007. He also was founder of the now-defunct Protecting Our Protectors, or POP, “a concerned group of citizens who support the firefighters and paramedics of the Mehlville Fire Protection District.

Skelton has been a longtime critic of board members during public-comment periods at Board of Directors meetings and had raised questions at the board’s Jan. 23 meeting about Proposition 1 and Proposition 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.

A lawsuit filed by Skelton two years ago led to the removal of the district’s Proposition TD, or Tax Decrease, from the April 3, 2007, ballot. The ballot language for Proposition TD stated, “Shall the voters of the Mehlville Fire Protection District decrease the general tax levy available to the district by 45 cents per $100 of assessed valuation? This proposition is based upon the 2006 assessed valuation for the district and equates to a total tax reduction of approximately $9.75 million per year. The foregoing shall not be subject to any tax rate reduction rollback.”

Skelton filed the lawsuit Feb. 7, 2007, seeking the removal of the tax-rate-decrease measure from the ballot, naming the county Board of Election Commissioners and the Mehlville Fire Protection District as defendants. In a ruling issued Feb. 8, 2007, St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge James R. Hartenbach ordered the Board of Election Commissioners to remove Proposition TD from the ballot.

Skelton’s current suit also names the Board of Election Commissioners and the Mehlville Fire Protection District as defendants. He is represented by attorney James R. Kimmey of Bartley Goffstein. Kimmey did not return a telephone call seeking comment before press time.

In his petition, Kimmey contends that Proposition 1 and Proposition 2 should be removed from the ballot because Chapter 321 of Missouri Revised Statutes, which pertains to fire protection districts, does not authorize the board to place tax-rate-decrease propositions before voters.

“Propositions 1 and 2 are beyond the scope of the district’s limited powers granted in Chapter 321, the only source of the district’s powers,” Kimmey wrote in a filing in support of the lawsuit.

He also contends, “The recent history of litigation within the district over the directors’ scorched-earth policies with respect to taxes, fringe benefits and personnel issues aside, the directors’ motive is clearly to have the voters do their dirty work for them. Who would not prefer to pay lower taxes while at the same time hoping to receive the same level of service? The problem is that Chapter 321 simply does not allow the directors to do what they are trying to do …”

Kimmey also cited Skelton’s previous lawsuit, contending, “… The very same issue is involved in this case.”

Given that, the measures should be removed from the ballot on the grounds of collateral estoppel, which prevents the re-litigation of an issue that previously was resolved in court.

Kimmey wrote, “Here, all parties, not just the defendant/respondent, are identical to those in Skelton I. Skelton I also resulted in a final order on the merits, which was not appealed. Most important, the very same issue is involved in this case … Nothing in Chapter 321 has changed in the intervening two years to give the directors the alleged power they again seek to abuse. Since the directors still lack the authority to place the ballot measure before voters, Propositions 1 and 2 are invalid and the same relief granted in Skelton I should be granted here.”

However, the fire district’s legal counsel, Mathew Hoffman, noted that Skelton’s suit does not mention the change in the law since Proposition TD was removed from the ballot two years ago.

“… The tax-rate-ceiling issue was recently addressed in Jefferson City when Senate Bill 711 was passed in the summer of 2008 and signed into law by former Gov. (Matt) Blunt. It has been codified under Chapter 137 of the Missouri Revised Statutes, which deals with the assessment and levy of property taxes,” Hoffman told the Call.

“The relevant section specifically states that: ‘Nothing in this section shall be construed as prohibiting a political subdivision from … seeking voter approval of a reduction to such political subdivision’s tax rate ceiling.’ Clearly, the Mehlville Fire Protection District is a political subdivision.”

In his memo in opposition to Skelton’s lawsuit, Hoffman wrote, “Proposition 1 and Proposition 2 have been properly filed with the St. Louis County Board of Election Commissioners and no objection has been made as to the form of the initiative or the procedures employed in putting these matters to a vote of the people. Though Chapter 321 is the enabling statute for fire protection districts, the Mehlville Fire Protection District must also adhere to other important issues contained throughout the Missouri Revised Statutes, including Section 137.073(5)(3) — Assessment and Levy of Property Taxes … Further, collateral estoppel is not applicable to this cause of action as the relevant language in Section 137.073 of the Missouri Revised Statutes was passed into law subsequent to the prior litigation referenced in 2007 by the plaintiff.”