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A new Oakville Elementary School is one of three new schools being constructed as part of the Mehlville School District's Proposition P districtwide building improvement program. Alyson E. Raletz photo (click for larger version)

Skyrocketing cost of Proposition P heads list of 2003's top-10 stories

A news analysis

Since work began on the Mehlville School District's Proposition P districtwide building improvement program, administrators and Board of Education members repeatedly said the projects were being done on time and within budget.

But as the Call was first to report last May, the actual cost of Proposition P will be millions more than originally anticipated, not to mention the fact that the 49-cent tax-rate increase voters approved to fund the program, then estimated to cost nearly $68.4 million, will generate millions more than is needed to retire the bond-like certificates issued to fund the improvements.

Given that, what was last year's No. 10 story is this year's No. 1 story.

As last year's No. 10 story, we noted that work was continuing on the Proposition P districtwide building improvement program. "District officials say the Prop P work, which will continue through 2005, will be completed on time and within budget,'' last year's story stated.

So without further ado, here are the top-10 stories of 2003 as selected by the Call:

• No. 1 — The cost of the Mehlville School District's Proposition P skyrockets to more than $86.7 million.

Mehlville residents may recall that Board of Education President Cindy Christopher told 500 people at the district's Recognition Night April 24 that Proposition P was on time and on budget.

But less than a month later — May 22 — this newspaper reported that while Proposition P had a board-approved budget of $72.4 million, the final cost of the improvements and related projects could total more than $86 million through June 30, 2008. The Call also reported that the tax-rate increase will generate nearly $26 million more than is required to retire bond-like certificates of participation issued to fund the Proposition P improvements.

In June, Proposition P Oversight Committee Chairman Chuck Van Gronigen contended that he was unaware of an additional $13.6 million in district capital funds that are projected to be spent on Proposition P-related projects.

Administrators countered that Oversight Committee members were fully aware that additional district capital funds are being spent and the total cost of the Proposition P improvements and related projects will be more than the board-approved $72.4 million budget. But they conceded that committee members may not have been fully aware that the additional district capital funds being used are being generated by the 49-cent tax-rate increase authorized by voters when Prop P was approved.

After months of discussing the true cost of Proposition P and revising and reformatting the Proposition P budget, board members this fall adopted a revised budget that projects the total cost of Proposition P will be $86,725,000 — the original budget of $72.4 million approved by the board in October 2001, plus an additional $14,325,000 in district capital funds.

In late October, district officials announced they are projecting a more than $31 million surplus of revenue needed to retire the bond-like certificates issued to fund Proposition P districtwide building improvement program through 2021-2022.

The projected surplus of $31,002,255 totals $5,182,973 more than the surplus of $25,819,282 projected earlier this year by district officials.

However, the projected $31,002,255 surplus dwindles to roughly $16.67 million as a result of the revised budget.

• No. 2 — Crestwood fiscal "anomalies'' lead to forensic audit, lawsuit.

What began as an investigation of some fiscal "anomalies'' in Crestwood resulted in a forensic audit and ultimately led to a lawsuit being filed against two former city officials.

Though the Board of Aldermen adopted a balanced fiscal 2004 operating budget in June, preparation of an end-of-the-year budget adjustment ordinance designed to close out the city's fiscal 2003 books led to a revised fiscal 2004 general fund budget that projects a shortfall of $112,010. During the preparation of the budget adjustment ordinance, which has yet to be presented to the board, city officials discovered that fiscal 2003 general fund expenses were slightly more than anticipated, while revenues, particularly those from merchant licenses, were far less than projected.

After current city officials began an internal investigation into the accounting practices used by former City Administrator Kent Leichliter and former Finance Officer Robert Wuebbels, the Board of Aldermen engaged Brown Smith Wallace to perform a forensic audit of the city's finances for fiscal 2001 and fiscal 2002.

The forensic audit, released Nov. 1, alleged that Leichliter and Wuebbels violated the City Charter, numerous ordinances and their duties as fiduciary officers in their handling of the city's finances.

Less than three weeks later, the city filed a lawsuit against Leichliter and Wuebbels alleging they breached their fiduciary duties by manipulating financial records to misrepresent the city's true financial condition to Mayor Jim Robertson and the Board of Aldermen.

Based on the forensic audit, the lawsuit alleges that Wuebbels, with Leichliter's knowledge, "engaged in a complex scheme to manipulate the financial accounts of the city of Crestwood so that the city budget would appear to be in balance and that the city was operating in a positive cash-flow situation, when, in fact, the city was operating in a serious negative cash-flow situation.''

• No. 3 — Lindbergh voters approve Proposition 4.

Lindbergh School District voters last April approved Proposition 4, a $14.1 million bond issue designed to address safety issues at all of the district's schools.

Approval of the measure increased the district's tax rate by 10 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.

Board members were told in October that preliminary cost estimates for the districtwide improvement projects totaled $14,384,496, $45,504 less than the budgeted amount of $14,430,000. Besides the $14.1 million of bond issue revenue, the $14,430,00 includes $330,000 in interest revenue from the bond issue.

The Proposition 4 victory followed the August 2002 defeat of Proposition L, a $14.1 million bond issue for high school building improvements, about half of which would have been used to build a new swimming pool.

• No. 4 — Mehlville Fire Protection District adopts balanced budget for second consecutive year.

The Mehlville Fire Protection District's Board of Directors last week voted to adopt a balanced fiscal 2004 budget that projects total revenues of $19,458,263 and anticipated expenditures of $18,331,311. This is the second consecutive year the board has approved a balanced budget.

The budget adopted by the Board of Directors for fiscal 2003 was the first balanced budget the board had adopted in recent memory. The board's action came after voters twice rejected proposals to increase the district's tax rate by 25 cents.

• No. 5 — Oakville residents oppose proposed trash-transfer station.

Oakville residents have been turning out in force for more than a year at public hearings, Planning Commission meetings and County Council meetings to oppose proposals by Fred Weber Inc. to construct a trash-transfer station in Oakville.

More than 500 people attended a public hearing last month conducted by the St. Louis County Department of Health on an application by a subsidiary of Fred Weber Inc. to operate a trash-transfer station at 4200 Baumgartner Road. The health department earlier this year rejected Fred Weber Inc.'s proposal to operate a transfer station at 5219 Baumgartner Road after determining the station would be hazardous to public health.

Given its determination to operate a trash-transfer station in Oakville despite overwhelming public opposition, expect more from this story in 2004.

• No. 6 — The Mehlville School District earns 148 of a possible 149 points on MSIP evaluation.

The Mehlville School District this year earned full accreditation from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education after earning 148 of a possible 149 points on its Missouri School Improvement Program evaluation.

• No. 7 — Odds are good gaming issue will cause controversy.

After laying dormant for several years, the gaming issue is back at the forefront as a county Selection Committee is studying proposals from three gaming companies to develop a casino in south county — two near the Jefferson Barracks Bridge and the third at the former National Lead site in Lemay. The selection committee is scheduled to offer its recommendation to the St. Louis County Port Authority Jan. 15.

While the gaming proposals have their supporters, those opposed to gambling also are organizing and working to make the public aware of the dangers of gambling.

• No. 8 — Mehlville administrators review hiring policies, including nepotism policy.

Mehlville School District administrators currently are reviewing the district's hiring policies, including the current nepotism policy, and plan to make a recommendation to the Board of Education in February.

Board President Cindy Christopher this summer asked administrators to review the district's hiring polices, particularly the nepotism policy, contending the current one is "extremely stringent.'' We're sure that district residents will be keeping a close eye on what happens with this issue.

• No. 9 — Crestwood voters approve fire sales tax.

Crestwood voters in August approved a quarter-cent sales tax that will generate from $900,000 to $1 million annually for the city's Fire Department.

A year earlier, residents approved a 15-year extension of a half-cent capital-improvement sales tax. City officials consider voter approval of the ballot measures an affirmation that the city is moving in the right direction.

• No. 10 — County Executive George R. "Buzz'' Westfall dies.

St. Louis County residents mourned the loss of County Executive George R. "Buzz'' Westfall, 59, who died Oct. 27 of a staph infection after dedicating 25 years of his life to public service.

Westfall, who would have completed his fourth term as county executive in 2006, spent 12 years as county prosecutor and 13 as county executive. A Democrat, Westfall was respected by both Democrats and Republicans for his strong will and his bold and direct manner. The County Council appointed Councilman Charlie Dooley, D-north county, as Westfall's successor to serve until the November election.

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