Crestwood voters approve quarter-cent fire sales tax
By MIKE ANTHONY
Crestwood officials view voter approval of a quarter-cent sales tax designed to offset the costs of providing fire protection as a vote of confidence in the direction the city is headed and pledge not to violate the trust residents have placed in them.
Crestwood voters last week approved the quarter-cent sales tax, called Proposition 1, which will generate from $900,000 to $1 million annually for the city's Fire Depart-ment.
The Fire department has an annual budget of about $2.5 million, which includes a $300,000 payment to the Affton Fire Protection District for the 290 acres east of the city between Grant and Rock Hill roads that was annexed six years ago.
Approval of the quarter-cent sales tax will increase the city's sales tax rate to 7.575 percent from the current rate of 7.325 percent.
Proposition 1 received 680 "yes'' votes — 56.95 percent — and 514 "no'' votes — 43.05 percent, according to official results released by the St. Louis County Board of Election Commissioners. Of the city's 9,051 registered voters, 1,197 — 13.23 percent — cast ballots in the Aug. 5 election.
Before the election, city officials had said that approval of the quarter-cent sales tax was necessary for the city to continue to provide the quality services it does at existing levels. If voters had rejected the sales tax, the Board of Aldermen would have had to take a hard look at either curtailing or eliminating some services.
As reported exclusively by the Call, preparation of an end-of-the-year budget adjustment ordinance designed to close out Crestwood's fiscal 2003 books led to a revised fiscal 2004 general fund budget that projected a shortfall of $112,010. In preparing the city's fiscal 2004 budget, City Administrator Don Greer reduced the city's total expense position by roughly $660,000 compared to the previous fiscal year by consolidating operations and eliminating a dozen positions.
With the quarter-cent sales tax, the city now will be able to build a fund balance in the general fund and establish a capital re-placement fund for costly vehicle and equipment purchases.
"Obviously, I'm very pleased with the results of the election Tuesday,'' Greer said. "I consider that an endorsement by the citizens of the city of Crestwood that they understand our situation. They've had ample opportunity to read and learn about our financial situation. We're in a very difficult time right now in our history. We're working very hard to correct that.
"I told the board very early in this process that I would never discuss the concept — the mayor and I talked about this on numerous occasions — we would never discuss the concept of looking for additional revenue until we were confident that we had reduced our expense position to what I guess I would call the most tolerable level. And I think we arrived there this spring. That information has been public. It's been discussed. It's been reported. Without any hesitation and over a period of time, the mayor's worked very hard to educate the public with regard to our revenue structure, our expense structure, our priorities and I think what the voters have done is given us the opportunity to correct ourselves.
"They've said: 'Yes, we understand this now.' And they've given us a tremendous amount of trust right now. It's just our job to move forward with that. This tax revenue is not a panacea. It's not a get-out-of-jail card. It's simply an opportunity for us to fix ourselves,'' Greer said.
The city has reduced expenses as much as possible without impacting the services it currently provides, Mayor Jim Robertson said. "... Now somebody will say, 'well you probably can find another dime some place,''' he said. "My answer is we're looking for those dimes, we're looking for those quarters, we're looking for those dollars. But any further significant expense reduction, then we would have to stop doing something that we've been doing ...
"My interpretation of Tuesday's vote is that the people who we work for said we do not want a reduction in the service levels that we enjoy. Therefore, we're willing to provide you that additional revenue stream so that you can continue on the path that you've been following, continue to improve 'efficiencies,' find additional ways to consolidate functions over the longer haul and maintain the service level that we expect, that we want, that we associate with living in the city of Crest-wood,'' the mayor continued.
"I'm deeply appreciative of the confidence that they've placed in this administration by approving that additional revenue stream. I anticipate that there are folks out there who are concerned — because I've already talked with some of them — about whether or not we're going to repeat the mistakes of the past. We're not," Robertson said.
The city will use the additional revenue wisely, he said. "We're just not going to go on a spending spree. It's not going happen. It would be irresponsible,'' Robertson said.
The mayor met with residents at various National Night Out Against Crime activities that were conducted throughout the city Aug. 5. Robertson said, "The folks I talked to were confident that we were going to go and continue in the right direction even with this additional funding that they all hoped would be available to us to make the city's affairs right. Let me put it that way.
"I'm not going to betray that trust. He's not going to betray that trust,'' Robertson said of the city administrator.
Greer said, "I don't think there's any question at all in the history that I've assembled or looked at or been supplemented by what the director of finance has put together in the last several months that the city of Crestwood has been living beyond its means for a number of years. We've stopped that. We have reduced the operating expenses by $660,000 in one fiscal year. That was a very painful experience, certainly for the employees who were directly affected. But it's not a pleasant experience to go through and make a recommendation to the board that positions be eliminated.
"But it's my job to get beyond that and get the board to the point where they feel comfortable that they can continue to move forward and continue to provide exceptional services. And this revenue gives us the opportunity to fix ourselves. We are still going to have to borrow money this fall to meet our obligations. We won't see any of this new tax revenue until March of next year and by our estimates, given historical numbers, we should expect somewhere in the neighborhood of slightly over $300,000 in additional revenue for the current fiscal year,'' Greer added.
As for Greer's comment that the city has been living beyond its means the past several years, Robertson said, "I don't think there's any question about that. I have vivid recollection when we were involved in the annexation campaign that one of the things that was bandied about ... was that Crestwood had over $2 million in re-serves. They're gone. Somebody spent them and now we have to put it back. And that's what we're going to do.''