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Board must involve public before seeking tax-rate hike

"Call the Tune" by Mike Anthony

Mehlville Fire Protection District Chief Ray Haddock and members of the district's Board of Directors once again are talking about seeking voter approval of a tax-rate increase.

The last two tax-rate increase proposals the district has placed before voters have been defeated. In April 2001, voters narrowly rejected a 25-cent tax-rate increase. Sixteen months later in August 2002, voters overwhelmingly rejected an identical 25-cent tax-rate increase.

This newspaper did not support either proposal. Our lack of confidence in the ability of Chief Ray Haddock and the Board of Directors to properly manage precious public resources certainly was no secret.

Slightly more than a month after the defeat of the second tax-rate increase, an "overwhelming majority'' of union firefighters and paramedics approved a "no confidence'' vote in Chief Haddock's administration, citing "irresponsible spending and planning."

But after several years of being unable — or unwilling — to adopt a balanced budget, the board voted in December 2002 to do just that. And this past December, the board adopted a balanced budget for a second year in a row. Those are two steps in the right direction, but not nearly enough to make us comfortable supporting a tax-rate increase at this time.

In formulating its second failed 25-cent tax-rate increase, the board relied upon the recommendation of a planning committee comprised solely of administrators and union employees.

The only input sought from the public was during a forum sponsored by the board two months after it voted to place the tax-rate increase on the ballot. That's not the way to do it. In fact, we suggested shortly after the defeat of the last proposal that the district utilize a public engagement process similar to the one used by the Mehlville School District that led to voter approval of Proposition P, at that time a nearly $68.4 million bond issue funded by a 49-cent tax-rate increase.

Board Chairman Tom O'Driscoll appears anxious to place a proposal on the August ballot. We doubt such a measure would be successful for a variety of reasons.

We urge the board to utilize a public engagement process involving residents who can learn firsthand about the district's needs and then offer suggestions about how those needs should be addressed. We believe that without such a process, any tax-rate increase proposal placed before voters by the fire district is doomed to failure.

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