Hilmer, Stegman plan to roll back 33 cents
August 24, 2005 - The two newest members on the Mehl-ville Fire Protection District Board of Direc-tors said that they don't plan to levy a 33-cent tax-rate increase voters approved last November when they set the district's tax rate next week.
Chairman Aaron Hilmer and Treasurer Bonnie Stegman, who ran on a fiscal re-form platform in the April election, told the Call in separate interviews that they plan to fulfill their campaign promise of rolling back the 33-cent tax-rate increase, called Proposition S.
A public hearing on the fire district's proposed tax rate for fiscal 2006 will take place at 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 29, at the district's headquarters, 11020 Mueller Road, Green Park.
Voters approved in November the 33-cent tax rate increase, which was designated to fund the first five years of a 10-year plan to address the fire district's needs.
The tax-rate increase was formulated with the help of 100 district residents who participated in the Fire District Advisory Committee for Tomorrow's Emergency Services, or FACTS. Revenue from the tax-rate increase would be used for replacing older ambulances and medical and fire equipment, keeping district employees' salaries comparable to other districts, repairing and replacing worn-out buildings and providing up-to-date training for firefighters and paramedics, according to the resolution that placed the measure on the ballot.
"Barring any unseen changes, I plan on keeping the tax rate at what it was last year, adjusted for reassessment," Hilmer told the Call.
"I stand on not using that tax-rate in-crease because it's what we ran on, and I think we can work on capital improvements by watching what we spend," Steg-man told the Call.
The district could have a maximum tax rate, not including the voter-approved 33 cents, of 85.7 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, based on the assessment data, Comptroller Jeff Geisler told the Call. If the Board of Directors decide to apply the 33-cent tax-rate hike approved by voters, the tax rate would be $1.187 per $100 of assessed valuation.
Geisler said this rate is slightly higher than the 85.1 cents per $100 of assessed valuation originally projected in the proposed tax rate notice released to the public, which the district is required by law to post or have published in local newspapers. He said the notice was based on preliminary assessment numbers before the district's final assessment valuations were released.
The district's assessed valuation has been growing an average of 2 percent each year, Geisler said. As the assessed valuation increases, the base tax rate, which does not include voter-approved levies, must drop to a percentage that only allows an in-crease in tax revenue collected equal to the Consumer Price Index or 5 percent, whichever is less, based on the Hancock Amendment.
This year, the assessed valuation for the district increased by more than $220 million, from 2004's assessed valuation of $1,871,764,059 to the 2005 projection of $2,091,980,224.
The increase allowed for the tax rates to drop from last year's 90.5 cents to the proposed 85.7 cents per $100 of assessed valuation and still will bring an additional $969,000 in revenue to the district.
The proposed tax rate of 85.7 cents per $100 of assessed valuation breaks down as follows:
• General fund — 56.5 cents.
• Ambulance fund — 20.3 cents.
• Pension fund — 8.9 cents.
• Alarm fund — zero.
Geisler said the alarm fund has enough reserve funds to go the year without levying a penny from taxpayers. He said the district could opt not to use the 4.4 cents per $100 assessed valuation for the alarm fund and instead apply 4.4 cents of the 33-cent tax increase for an apparatus fund and capital improvements fund and still keep the total proposed tax rate at 85.7 cents.
"The net affect has zero impact on taxpayers," Geisler said. "We're dropping the 4.4 cents out of one bucket and picking it up out of another."
Chief Jim Silvernail told the Call that he plans to propose a capital-improvement plan to the board at the public hearing.
He said his proposal includes constructing an additional fire station and the district's first training center, instead of training at Jefferson Barracks.
The plan also includes purchasing five thermal devices so all eight fire trucks are equipped with a device, a fire truck and ambulance to replace worn-out vehicles, new defibrillators for the fire trucks and rescue boats for flash flooding along the Mississippi and Meramec rivers.
"I think that we're in dire need of a new fire station, I think we're in dire need of a training center, I think the rescue boats are extremely important, and of course a lot of these are for firefighter safety," Silvernail told the Call.
"It gives us the tools to do our job correctly, rather than piecemeal,'' he added.
He also would like to update the district's accountability system. Each firefighter would have a personal safety device that will send a signal to a computer on the truck if a firefighter gets injured.
"This will make a noise and send out a signal to let us know that he's down," he said.
He told the Call he does not yet have a proposed cost estimate of the plan.
Stegman said the district may not be able to do an entire capital improvement project all at once, but instead handle a few projects at a time without having to draw on the 33-cent tax-rate increase.
"You can't do everything at once," Steg-man told Call. "You prioritize, you plan, you get what you need, and might have to wait a little bit (for lower priorities)."
Stegman and Hilmer may face tough opposition at the public hearing. A group of residents and family members of firefighters have criticized many of the decisions of the two newest board members.
At the Aug. 15 board meeting, the group picketed outside the district's headquarters before the meeting. Dennis Skelton, a resident who is leading the group, said the focus of the group has been getting board members to negotiate with Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Firefighters regarding employee benefits.
Skelton said the group will continue to protest at every board meeting for as long as it takes.
"We'll be outside until they take a reasonable and realistic approach to simple negotiations where they use open, good-faith bargains where both sides sit down," Skelton said. "It's proposal, counterproposal until you end up with a final document, just straight-out negotiations."