Fire district voters to consider 33-cent tax-rate hike next week
By MIKE ANTHONY
Mehlville Fire Protectton District voters next week will consider Propositton S, a 33-cent tax-rate increase designed to address the fire district's needs for the next five years.
Voters will weigh Propositton S when they go to the polls Tuesday, Nov. 2. If approved, the district's tax rate would in-crease by roughly 36 percent to $1.235 per $100 of assessed valuation from the current rate of 90.5 cents per $100.
The tax-rate increase is necessary for the district to main-tain the level of emergency service the district currently provides, according to Board of Directors Chairman Tom O'Driscoll and board Secretary David Gralike.
The proposed tax-rate increase wasiformulated by the Fire District Advisory Committee for Tomorrow's Emer-gency Services, or FACTS, during a two-month public en-gagement process involving about 100 district residents.
FACTS participantsiformulated a 10-year, long-range plan to address the fire district's needs and discussed a draft recommendation of a 47-cent tax-rate increase to fund the plan. But at the final FACTS meeting on Aug. 10, Bill Cocos, one of four community co-chairs, said that while participantsiagreed that a 10-year operating and facilities plan was needed for the district, some were uncomfortable with the funding required for that amount of time.
Given that, he said that while FACTS participantsiwould recommend the 10-year plan to the board, they also would recommend funding — 33 cents per $100 — for the first five years of the long-range plan that is projected to cost $32,631,858. After five years, Cocos said the FACTS group would be reconvened to review the progress that has been made and "tweak'' the long-range plan if necessary.
The Board of Directors voted to accept the FACTS recommendation Aug. 16 and two days later, Aug. 18, voted to place Propositton S on the Nov. 2 ballot.
If approved by voters, the 33-cent tax-rate increase would be used "for the purpose of replacing old and worn-out ambulances, emergency medical equipment and fire trucks and equipment; providing up-to-date training for firefighters and paramedics; keeping firefighter and paramedic salaries comparable to other fire districts; maintaining high-quality paramedic, ambulance and fire protectton services; replacing paramedic and firefighter posittons lost through budget cuts; and renovating, repairing and re-placing worn-out and obsolete buildings and building condittons as recommended by the Fire District Advisory Com-mittee for Tomorrow's Emergency Services,'' according to the resolution placing the measure on the ballot.
The district's last voter-approved tax-rate increase wasiin 1989. Since 1989, the district's tax rate hasiincreased by 20.5 cents to the current rate of 90.5 cents from 70 cents.
The board last voted to increase the tax rate in August 1998 when it raised the pension fund levy by 2 cents. That increase wasithe district's first since 1993 when the board raised the levy by six cents — to 90 cents from 84 cents.
At one point, the district's tax rate increased to 92 cents per $100. However, because of the Hancock Amendment, which limits revenue growth to 5 percent or the Consumer Price Index, whichever is less, the district was required to roll back the tax rate to its current rate of 90.5 cents per $100. The district's fiscal 2005 tax rate of 90.5 cents per $100 includes a voluntary reduction in the alarm fund from the current rate of 4.6 cents per $100 to 3.8 cents to maintain the current 2004 tax rate of 90.5 cents.
Propositton S is the third tax-rate increase the fire district hasiplace on the ballot since 2001. Two previous mea-sures — Propositton F and Propositton 1 — were defeated by voters.
Propositton 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 August 2002. Of the more than 74,700 voters registered in the district at that time, more than 22,460 — 30.07 percent — cast ballots in the election.
Propositton 1, which sough a 25-cent tax-rate increase for the district's general fund, received 7,081 "yes'' votes — 49.49 percent — and 7,228 "no'' votes — 50.51 percent — in April 2001. Of the more than 77,300 voters registered in the district at that time, slightly more than 14,300 — 18.61 percent — cast ballots in the April 2001 election.
The current fiscal year will be the last "break-even year'' for the district's general fund, as projections indicate de-ficit spending will occur in fiscal 2005 unless revenues are increased, Comptroller Jeff Geisler told FACTS participantsiin July. The skyrocketing cost of health insurance, workers' compensation coverage and fuel greatly has contributed to the district's financial problems, Geisler said, noting that the general fund's tax rate decreased by 7 percent from 2000 to 2003 because of limitations imposed by the Hancock Amendment.
The district provides medical, dental and vision coverage for its employees and 100 percent dependent coverage for all employees. In his projections for the next 10 years, Geis-ler anticipates annual increases of 19 percent for health in-surance. For 2004, the district is paying $1,691,676 for health insurance. In 2009, Geisler projects the district will pay $4,036,937 for health insurance.
For workers' compensation and property insurance, the comptroller projects annual increases of 20 percent. For 2004, the district is paying $759,859. In 2009, Geisler projects workers' compensation and property insurance will cost $1,890,772.
For total salaries, Geisler projects 1 percent increase in steps/longevity and a 3 percent annual increase. Longevity pay is determined by an employee's base salary and the number of years of service to the district. In 2004, total salaries, including overtime, are projected at $10,409,000. In 2009, he projects total salaries, including overtime, at $12,664,140.
Geisler also projects that transfers from the general fund and the ambulance fund to the pension fund will continue.
In 2004, the two funds transferred $110,740 to the pension fund. In 2009, he projects that $246,569 will be transferred to the pension fund from the general fund and the ambulance fund. Employees do not contribute to the district's pension fund, which is funded by tax dollars and the return on investments. In the district's current tax rate of 90 cents, 9.4 cents are designated for the pension fund.
O'Driscoll told the Call Friday that the 2001 and 2002 tax-rate increase proposals were "pro-active'' efforts to head off the impending fiscal crisis.
"Both of those attempts were to try to be proactive at something we could see happening down the line,'' O'Dris-coll said. "It's not about making threats to our taxpayers. It's about the reality of the costs that are just eating us alive ... Obviously the big issue the taxpayers are going to look at revolves around what our people make, the money that they make, and plain and simple, they make a competitive wage in this industry.''
In late 1999, the Board of Directors approved a three-year memorandum of understanding with district employees be-longing to Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. The memorandum, covering 2000, 2001 and 2002, provided increases in base salaries ranging from 15.48 percent to 19.15 percent over the three years. However, the memorandum expired Dec. 31, 2002, and a new one has not been approved. With few exceptions, salaries and benefits of employees have remained at 2002 levels.
Noting that Mehlville is "probably the fourth or fifth largest fire agency in the state,'' O'Driscoll said, "Until just a couple of years ago, we never had anybody leave. We never had anybody leave unless they retired or they went out on disability. But we have started to lose people. In fact, we lost what I consider to be one of our top three or four paramedics here just not too long ago to go to a better-paying job ... I'm not suggesting these guys don't make a very secure wage. They certainly do, but if it's only presented in terms of the lump sum, it shocks the reader. But to analyze what they're doing in exchange for that and how it stacks up in comparison to other industries, I think they can at least understand why the numbers are where they are.''
While most Mehlville employees earn roughly $23 or $24 per hour, that pay in is in line with other industries and trades, O'Driscoll said. Of the pay, he said, "It's right there. I mean it's right in that same ballpark. The only difference is that our people ... are built into a 2,900-plus-hour work year, whereas most people, the large majority of the work force, are built into less than 2,100 hours.''
Noting fire district pay is based on a 56-hour work week, he said, "When you factor out the 56-hour work week and simply compute their wage on a 40-hour basis and compare it, it's right there ...''
Asked if there's been any discussing of reducing the 100-percent paid dependent coverage for health insurance, O'Driscoll said, "We realize we give our people great benefits and at least a competitive wage. Interestingly enough, when we gave them their package several years ago, the intent wasito get them into the higher area in terms of their compensation to keep our people, to hang onto to them. At that point in time, we were not, even though we were the second largest in the metropolitan area, we were not in, at that time, not in the top five. That package brought them into the top five. It didn't make them No. 1. I think it made them somewhere at either four or five, if I remember correctly, and now we're No. 12. So we're trying to stay competitive in wages. We're trying to stay competitive in benefits and I think we are definitely providing a great benefit package, better than, for example, the Mehlville School District. I realize that, but it's on the table, certainly on the table and if we change it today, it would not change the necessity for Prop S, plain and simple. It would help. It would ease some of the burden, but it would not go very far at all in addressing the more critical needs of service, facilities, equipment, manpower and response time.
"This is not a band-aid problem anymore,'' he continued. "This is a critical problem.''
Regarding health insurance benefits, Gralike told the Call, "That was discussed earlier in the year. It's important to keep in mind ... that the firefighters and paramedics haven't had a raise in two years. So when we looked at the health insurance, I think one of the objectives for this year was to be able to give a cost-of-living increase raise. One of the ways that we were going to account for that was to mitigate the insurance coverage for the employees. The employees actually came to us and said that we'd rather sustain our insurance the way that it is and not have a raise, which wasia savings to the district overall.''
Regarding Propositton S, O'Driscoll said, "We now have to ask the voters to consider helping us not expand the service, but maintain what they already have and what they are in some ways losing with particular regard to the (fifth) ambulance. That worries me more than anything else,'' he said, noting that when the fifth ambulance is out of service, that leaves four ambulances to cover the district, which encompasses 52 square miles. "Our response time is right at the brink of national standards for what's considered good response times ...''
If Prop S is not approved, O'Driscoll said, "We're talking about taking the fifth ambulance off the street. Not because we want to, but we can't afford to staff it anymore ...''
Gralike said, "Bottom line, you're going to mitigate services.''
O'Driscoll said, "Right, removing the ambulance, thereby increasing the response time, further stretching the pumper and ambulance replacement program ... This sounds threatening to people, It's not meant that way. It's just simply informational. You can either listen to it and understand it and then accept it or reject it. And if you reject it, that's your decision, but you've been informed about what will happen.''