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Survey shows 58 percent of sample group believes fire district's finances are healthy

About 58 percent of a sample group of registered voters in the Mehlville Fire Protection District believes the district's financial condition is healthy, a recent survey indicates.

UNICOM/ARC recently conducted a telephone survey of 400 registered voters in the Mehlville Fire Protection District.

"The simple truth is, nearly 60 percent think this district's financial situation is healthy," UNICOM/ARC President Rod Wright told the district's Board of Directors during its June 14 meeting.

"The misperception by the community is one of the real challenges you'll face in seeking additional revenue."

Wright explained that one of the reasons for the community's "misperception" is that the Mehlville Fire Protection District buildings and equipment have "relatively good curb appeal."

The survey, conducted in May from a random sample of registered voters, also indicated that only 21.5 percent of respondents believe the district needs additional revenue, and 19.8 percent don't know or had some other response.

The three-member board of directors — Chairman Tom O'Driscoll, Secretary David Gralike and Treasurer Dan Ottoline Sr. — voted unanimously April 19 to approve a contract with UNICOM/ARC to engage the public in long-range planning that could result in a ballot recommendation to be considered by the board.

The contract includes a public-opinion telephone survey that will cost the district nearly $15,000 and a professional fee of $20,000 to help the district organize "engagement meetings."

Among other survey results, Wright told the board that about 59 percent of respondents said they could not afford to pay higher property taxes no matter how good the cause, but later in the survey, about 57 percent said they were willing to support an increase in taxes to maintain the quality of services they receive from the local fire protection district.

"If you like consistency, don't get into public opinion work," Wright told the board.

Another inconsistency in responses showed "virtually a dead heat" in total respondents who favor and total respondents who said they oppose a 25-cent property tax-rate increase — 49 percent favor and 48.6 percent oppose the increase.

When asked again at the end of the survey whether respondents would favor or oppose this tax-rate increase, nearly 53 percent said they favor the tax-rate increase, and 43 percent said they oppose it.

Wright said that the survey results are unusual in that such a low number of respondents did not know or were undecided about the 25-cent tax-rate increase — only 2.5 percent the first time the question was asked and 3.3 percent the second time. He suggested this number was so low because the issue has been on the ballot in the past.

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, district 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.

Wright compared the number of those who favor a 25-cent tax-rate increase to another survey question — how much money respondents would be willing to spend monthly for the fire district. Nearly 42 percent responded saying they would be willing to spend nothing, 13 percent said up to $4.99, nearly 10 percent said from $5 to $9.99, and nearly 15 percent said from $10 to $25 a month.

About 5 percent of respondents said they were willing to spend more than $25 per month on the fire district and about 18 percent of respondents said they didn't know or gave some other answer.

Asked whether respondents received good value in service for the taxes they pay to their local fire protection district, nearly 46 percent said they strongly agree, and nearly 89 percent said they agree in some way.

In asking about priorities for additional funds in the Mehlville Fire Protection District, the majority of respondents answered at a minimum that each were high priorities — providing up-to-date training for firefighters and paramedics, replacing old ambulances and emergency medical equipment, replacing old fire trucks, keeping firefighter and paramedic salaries comparable to other districts, replacing firefighter and paramedic positions recently lost through budget cuts, improving readiness for homeland security emergencies and making five ambulances available full-time instead of only four that usually are available because of budget cuts.

About 87 percent of the survey respondents agreed with the statement that they trust the fire district's leadership and 42 percent indicated they strongly agreed.

When commenting about the 12.5 percent of respondents who answered that they strongly agreed that there has been a lot of controversy about the Mehlville Fire Protection District recently and the nearly 40 percent who agree in some way with the statement, Wright said that sometimes there is a built-in predisposition for respondents to agree with a statement.

However, the same question asked regarding the Mehlville School District indicated that 22 percent strongly agree that there has been a lot of controversy and nearly 51 percent agree in some way.

The survey also asked other questions, not specific to the fire protection district, to indicate public sentiments.

For instance, nearly 68 percent of respondents answered that St. Louis County was headed in the right direction vs. nearly 18 percent who believed the county was headed in the wrong direction.

Wright said that this up-trend was related to the economy and that the responses indicate people are more likely to support various ballot issues.

Other general public issues asked included whether public officials should learn how to balance budgets rather than always ask for tax increases, with nearly 70 percent strongly agreeing and nearly 91 percent in some form of agreement.

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