UPDATED: Crestwood board takes first step toward placing tax-rate hike on ballot

Aldermen discuss feedback from town meeting

Gregg Roby

Gregg Roby

By Mike Anthony

The Crestwood Board of Aldermen took the first step Tuesday night toward placing a tax-rate increase on the April ballot.

Aldermen voted unanimously to have City Attorney Lisa Stump draft an ordinance to place a tax-rate increase before city voters in the April 4 election.

Ward 4 Alderman Tim Anderson’s motion to have Stump draft the ordinance did not specify an amount for a proposed tax-rate increase.

Aldermen spent roughly an hour Tuesday night discussing the feedback they received from residents at a town meeting last week. During the discussion, several aldermen indicated a preference for a ballot measure ranging from 40 cents to 50 cents. No decision was reached on an amount, and aldermen will continue their discussion at meetings of the Ways and Means Committee set in early November.

The ordinance is set to be discussed by the Board of Aldermen when it meets at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 22, at the Government Center, 1 Detjen Drive.

The city of Crestwood is at a financial “crossroads” and residents must decide what level of services they want their city to provide, according to City Administrator Kris Simpson.

Roughly 125 residents attended a town meeting last week at the Community Center designed for elected officials to obtain input on possibly placing a tax-rate increase before voters.

Simpson made several brief presentations during the Oct. 18 town meeting, which was live streamed on YouTube Live Events. After Simpson’s presentations, at-tendees were encouraged to cast ballots on their preference — no tax-rate increase, a 25-cent tax-rate increase, a 50-cent tax-rate increase or a 75-cent tax-rate increase.

Electronic votes also were accepted.

Ballots also could be cast on the city’s website. Simpson planned to present the results to the Board of Aldermen Tuesday night — after the Call went to press — for the board to discuss.

The city administrator told elected officials last month that he projects a $7.1 million cumulative deficit in the city’s general fund from 2017 to 2021.

“This is really your conversation. What we’re facing right now is a mismatch of service level and revenues. Right now, we’ve got services that are costing the city more than we’re bringing in in revenues, and so that’s unsustainable,” he told residents at the town meeting during one of his presentations. “So obviously, like anyone when you’re spending more than you’re taking in, you’ve either got to spend less or you’ve got to earn more. That’s kind of the simple choice that we have to make.”

Citing a 21-percent drop in revenues from 2006 to 2016, Simpson said, “We’ve tried to live within our means over that time …”

For example, the city has eliminated 33.5 positions since 2003. Today the city has 89 employees, compared to 122.5 in 2003 — a reduction of 27 percent. Furthermore, nearly half of the city’s workforce has turned over since 2010, resulting in significant “brain drain,” he said.

“… If you’re willing to have Crestwood be a lower-service city, then we can talk about no tax increases, no revenue increases. We’ll get by with whatever you all are willing to give us, but you should understand that there is a trade-off here. We can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing …,” Simpson said.

Crestwood’s 2016 tax rates are 27.8 cents per $100 of assessed value for personal property, 24.8 cents per $100 for residential property and 41.4 cents per $100 for commercial property. From the 1950s to the mid-1980s, the residential property-tax rate ranged from 55 cents to 65 cents per $100.

With the success of the former Crestwood Plaza, the city’s tax rate was reduced to its current level in the mid-1980s and has remained unchanged since then, he said, noting city voters have never approved a general-purpose property-tax increase.

Since the mid-1990s, voters have ap-proved three sales taxes for the city — a half-cent capital-improvement sales tax, a half-cent parks and stormwater sales tax and a quarter-cent sales tax for fire services.

“So as we look for solutions, this is the glaring, the obvious part — it costs $678 per resident to provide the level of service that we provide and we only take in $91 in property taxes per resident per year,” Simpson said. “That’s a major imbalance, and when you look at our financial structure, we are already super dependent on sales taxes. We have every single sales tax that the state will allow us to charge on the books. So we’re already doing what we can do to get it out of the business community, but they’re not generating what it used to be, and so now we’re at a crossroads.”

A 75-cent tax-rate increase would allow the city to maintain its current levels of service, result in a surplus of $302,000 over the five-year period from 2017 to 2021 and cost the owner of a $200,000 home $285 per year.

A 50-cent tax-rate increase would reduce the deficit to $2.1 million and cost the owner of a $200,000 home $190 per year. However, adjustments would have to be made to the city’s current operations, including reducing city staff by seven positions and lowering response times for police, fire, EMS and snow removal, according to information presented at the town meeting.

A 25-cent tax-rate increase would result in the city’s reserves being depleted by 2021 and cost the owner of a $200,000 home $95 per year. But “dramatic changes” would have to be made to the city’s current operations, including cutting city staff by 15 positions, “significantly” reducing response times for police, fire, EMS and snow removal.

Resident Dan Garvey, who attended the town meeting, told the Call that he supports a tax-rate increase.

“I’ve looked at it. I think 50 or 75 (cents) is fine,” he said. “I want to maintain the services we have now. I don’t want to lose them. I don’t want the infrastructure to crumble. It’s a great community and I want it to stay great …”

The turnover of employees also concerns him, Garvey said, adding, “I just don’t want to be hamstrung to where we’re losing em-ployees. How much tribal knowledge has the city lost in the last 10 years? A lot.”

Another attendee, resident R. Hahn, criticized how the information was presented at the town meeting, saying, “There’s no counterpoint about how the money’s being spent. I didn’t hear that.”

A discussion about whether the city is be-ing fiscally responsible with the revenues it now has needs to occur, he said.

“The information here is presented — it’s couched in terms of if you don’t raise taxes, you’re going to lose out on something. You’re going to lose your services. You won’t get good employees. Unless you raise taxes, something bad will happen to your service level …,” Hahn said. “There’s income and there’s outgo, right? I didn’t hear anything about how interested are the citizens in whether we are being fiscally responsible with the money we do have …”

Mayor Gregg Roby told the Call that he received very positive feedback from residents at the town meeting.

“I’ve obviously had a number of people come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I’d pay the 75 cents.’ I think what they’re doing is they’re looking at that number and then looking at the comparison of Crestwood to other municipalities that they feel are in the same general area that we’re in,” he said, citing Sunset Hills, whose residents pay taxes to either the Mehlville Fire Protection District or the Fenton Fire Protection District in addition to the city. “Wow, they’re over a buck, and so we’re going to be at a buck. Well, we’re still going to be lower than Sunset Hills. We consider them to be a neighboring community, so we shouldn’t be much different than they are.”

“And then a lot of people have said, ‘Look, I know if we lose our fire, we’re going to end up in a (fire protection) district and that’s going to cost us a lot more money. And we already know if we got rid of our police and went with St. Louis County, that was going to cost us more money …”