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MFPD board sets tax rate, rolls back 33 cents OK'd by voters


September 07, 2005 - By LAURA UHLMANSIEK

Staff Report

The Mehlville Fire District Board of Directors last week established a "blended'' tax rate of 86.5 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, electing not to apply a 33-cent tax-rate increase approved by voters last November.

The board faced loud protests from an overcrowded room of residents and firefighters and their families who said they had supported the 33-cent tax-rate increase and wanted it applied to the fiscal 2006 tax rate. After a public hearing, the board approved the measure 2-1, with Chairman Aaron Hilmer and Treasurer Bonnie Stegman in favor and Secretary Dan Ottoline opposed.

Hilmer and Stegman, who ran on a reform campaign in the April election, had promised voters that they would roll back the 33-cent tax-rate increase approved by voters in No-vember.

"It was the centerpiece of our campaign," Hilmer told the Call. "We are delivering the goods. ... As it stood, taxes were set to rise 33 cents or 36 percent. Taxes are rising zero cents, we're just managing district resources better."

The 33-cent tax-rate increase 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. 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.

After some residents said Aug. 29 that they supported the 33-cent tax-rate increase, Ottoline said he was in favor of applying part of the 33 cents to the tax rate.

"The tax increase was supposed to be for the capital improvements and I don't think that it was the intent of the past board to take the full 33 cents ...," Ottoline said. "I don't think we'll need all of it, but I think we'll need some of it."

Chief Jim Silvernail had told the Call that he planned to propose a capital improvement plan to the board at the public hearing, but at the meeting Silvernail said the complete proposal was not ready and that he planned to discuss it with the board at the next meeting.

Ottoline asked the chief if the tax rate would be able to pay for the chief's plan.

"I don't know how much you're going to have left over," Silvernail said. "I gave my proposal to the board and you're going to have to look into that and tell me what you what you appoint."

Mehlville Comptroller Jeff Geisler had told the Call that the district's assessed valuation has been growing on average 2 percent each year. This year, the district's assessed valuation 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.

As the assessed valuation grows, the base tax rate, which does not include voter-approved levies, must drop to a percentage that allows an increase in tax revenue collected equal to the Consumer Price Index or 5 percent, whichever is less, under the Hancock Amendment.

The increase in assessed valuation allowed the district to drop the property tax rates from last year's 90.5 cents to 86.5 cents per $100 of assessed valuation and still bring an additional $1.12 million tax revenue to the district.

The blended tax rate of 86.5 cents per $100 breaks down as follows:

• General fund — 57 cents

• Ambulance fund — 20.6 cents

• Pension fund — 8.9 cents.

• Alarm fund — zero.

The blended rate is a combination of four tax rates, so no one actually pays this rate. This is the third year that St. Louis County taxing entities have been required to calculate four separate tax rates. The four rates approved by the board are: residential property, $85.5 cents per $100; commercial property, 83.7 cents; agricultural property, $1.133; and personal property, 94 cents.

Geisler had told the Call that the alarm fund has enough reserve funds to go the year without levying a cent. The board's approved tax rate does not apply the 4.4 cents per $100 assessed valuation allotted for the alarm fund, but instead applies 4.4 cents of the 33-cent tax increase for an apparatus fund and capital improvements fund without raising the tax rate.

Chris Francis, president of the Interna-tional Association of Fire Fighters Local 1889, pointed out that part of the 33-cent tax rate is being used by the district even though the Hilmer and Stegman said they would not use the tax-rate hike.

"You've lied to the taxpayers," Francis told the Call, referring to Hilmer and Stegman. "You haven't rolled back the 33 cents. You've taken four cents of the 33 cents."

If the Board of Directors had applied the 33-cent property tax levy approved by voters, district residents would have had to pay $1.194 per $100 of assessed valuation and it would have brought in about $6.6 million in tax revenue to the district.

The board did approve a last-minute increase to the tax rates that will recover tax revenue that the district should have received for the 2002, 2003 and 2004 tax years. A group of more than 100 commercial companies filed an appeal with the State Tax Commission against the county assessor, contending their assessments were too high for the past three years. The commission, however, found that the plaintiffs had actually been accurately assessed, but many of the commercial properties in the county had been assessed at too low of a rate.

While many school districts in the county, especially the Lindbergh School Dis-trict, will lose money, Geisler said the fire district actually will recoup $196,000.

During his remarks to the board, Francis said a rumor had been circulating among the district employees.

"Did you contact Comptroller Jeff Geis-ler and ask him to figure in a 3 percent raise for employees into the budget and then after the conflict of interest story with Stegman broke out, call him back and ask him to figure in 0 percent increase for the employees?" Francis asked Hilmer at the meeting.

Hilmer responded, "I did tell him that I would recommend to the board that there should be no increases in wages or benefits for next year."

Hilmer later told the Call that the 3 percent salary increase was part of the original budget proposed by the previous board and would have been funded by the 33-cent tax-rate increase.

Francis also told the board members that he was disappointed that the union was not consulted for next year's budget.

"In past years we've worked closely with management — using the knowledge and experience ... among our members — to identify costs savings that did not compromise public safety," Francis said. "We don't know why we are now excluded from the this process."

Stegman responded, "Anytime you had anything to say, we are more than welcome to listen to it. I'm sorry you have operated in the past differently with a different board, but you knew that we had told you constantly that everything will been done in open session, so if you have a specific proposal, please bring it to the board meeting and we will listen to you."

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