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MFPD board continues discussion of public engagement process

The Mehlville Fire Protection District's Board of Directors was scheduled this week to continue a discussion of a proposal to involve the public in long-range planning.

The Board of Directors were scheduled to meet Monday night — after the Call went to press.

The three-member board voted April 1 to research the possibility of placing a tax-rate increase before voters. At the same meeting, board members heard a proposal from Rod Wright of UNICOM/ARC to engage the public in long-range planning that could result in a ballot recommendation to be considered by the board.

Board Treasurer Dan Ottoline Sr. and board Secretary David Gralike continued the discussion of UNICOM/ARC's proposal last week, but tabled any action because Chairman Tom O'Driscoll was absent.

In an April 9 letter to Chief Ray Haddock, Wright wrote, "... As we discussed, the essential first step is conducting the public opinion research. The results of the survey are critically important to making decisions about strategy.

"Given your recent electoral history, though, it is very likely that some type of engagement program will be essential. For that to be completed in time for a November election, we must move quickly,'' Wright's letter stated.

The board's last two ballot measures — a 25-cent tax-rate increase in April 2001 and a 25-cent tax-rate increase in August 2002 — were defeated by voters.

In April 2001, voters narrowly defeated the proposed 25-cent tax-rate increase for the district's general fund. That proposal, called Proposition 1, received 7,081 "yes'' votes — 49.49 percent — and 7,228 "no'' votes — 50.51 percent. In August 2002, Proposition F, which sought to increase the district's tax rate by 25 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, received 7,895 "yes'' votes — 36.84 percent — and 13,534 "no'' votes — 63.16 percent.

In his letter, Wright noted, "We can start the survey immediately and it will take about a month to complete from beginning to end. We also need to get moving on the engagement program, and the more I've thought about it, the more I'm convinced that this program would bring tremendous benefits to the district.''

During the April 14 meeting, Gralike noted that Wright had discussed potential dates for a ballot measure and that if the board wanted to pursue an August election, a telephone survey would have to be conducted immediately.

" ... His recommendation was that don't go forward in August unless you have favorable results from the survey,'' Gralike said.

Dan Burns of UNICOM/ARC, who represented the firm at the April 14 meeting, said, "Correct.''

Gralike continued, "But my concern with that would be is that we'll lose an entire month of the public engagement process. So my question would be, would it be your recommendation that if we move forward and we do the survey that we also move forward with the public engagement process ... on the chance that the results may not come back the way that we would like.''

Burns said, "Absolutely. Dr. Wright and I have talked about the district here and the proposal ... and it's just you're running into a real short frame for what we like to do with public engagement. Public engagement takes time. People need to have time to receive information ... They need to have time to receive information and process it ...''

The public engagement process should not be rushed, Burns emphasized.

"... You cannot rush and you should not rush community feedback and community direction in terms of decisions. The public needs time to process that kind of information,'' he said. "The other thing I would say to you is that what we have found in all the public engagement programs that we've done: If we don't have the time to do the upfront preparation for it — and that's all the advertisement, the communication, the recruiting that needs to be done — you cannot have a successful launch of the program. And the more programs we do, the more we realize that it takes about a month to do all the preparation work to get started ...''

Noting that part of the engagement process involves establishing a facilitating team, Burns said, "We like to have a small group of anywhere from six to a dozen folks that work as a facilitating team for the entire process. The entire process is going to involve several-hundred folks before it's over. But there needs to be a facilitating team that guides that. We'll want community leadership for that team. So it takes a little bit of time to think about who those folks are ... For you to be able to have a first, to have a successful first community meeting sometime in mid-May, we really ought to be starting that, starting to work on all the preparations right now.''

Noting that the deadline to place a measure on the August ballot would be in late May, Haddock said, "... (What) you're saying is that if we were thinking about August, we really should have been already at our group sessions ...''

In discussing the situation with Wright, Burns said they concluded it would be "tough'' to properly conduct a community engagement process for an August ballot measure.

Burns said, "... I'm not saying you couldn't do some community sessions, but to do public engagement the way you really need to do it, do it in preparation for the community making recommendations to you so that the board has an opportunity to study and process those recommendations and then do what you need to do to put it on an August ballot, we think that's not really fair to yourself in terms of the quality of the work that can be done. In fact, it's going to be tight for November because the certification deadline for that is Aug. 24, I believe, which means you really need to be done and the community needs to be done with all of its work by really August ...''

The cost of a telephone survey would be nearly $15,000, while the cost of the public engagement process proposed by UNICOM/ARC would be $20,000. Haddock said that after talking with Comptroller Jeff Geisler, he believed funding would be available if the board elected to pursue the telephone survey and the public engagement process.

An audience member asked Ottoline if the board was considering a tax-rate increase or a bond issue.

"Whatever. Whatever the survey shows,'' Ottoline said.

Burns said, "And if you do a public engagement, it would be what the public would recommend to you.''

Noting O'Driscoll's absence, Ottoline suggested the matter be tabled until Monday night's meeting.

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