Legislation that would permit a fire protection district’s board of directors to place a proposed tax rate cut before voters has been introduced in the Missouri legislature by state Rep. Walt Bivins (R-Oakville).
Bivins said he introduced the bill because he believes a fire district board should be authorized to place a tax rate decrease proposal on the ballot and voters should be able to consider such a proposition.
Furthermore, Bivins said he’s optimistic his bill will receive a hearing from the Special Committee on Tax Reform, which is chaired by state Rep. Joe Smith (R-St. Charles).
“Joe and I have been good friends in the legislature and I expect that he will give me a hearing. I anticipate what’s going to happen is this is a fairly small bill as bills go and I would anticipate that it would probably get rolled in with other legislation so that we have some type of omnibus fire protection district taxing bill or something of that nature,” Bivins said.
State Rep. Jim Lembke (R-Lemay) is the “primary co-sponsor” of House Bill 1730, Bivins said. Other co-sponsors are Reps. Jane Cunningham (R-Chesterfield), David Sater (R-Cassville), Jason Brown (R-Platte City), Marilyn Ruestman (R-Joplin), Sally Faith (R-St. Charles), and Danielle Moore (R-Fulton).
Fire District Takes Lead
The Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors recently hired a lobbyist, former Republican state Rep. Catherine Enz of south St. Louis County, and Bivins credited Enz with helping obtain the co-sponsors.
“Well, I’ll have to give credit to former Rep. Cathy Enz for making that happen,” Bivins said. “She actually carried the bill around to different folks and explained it to them–something that I really didn’t have time to do although I had put an e-mail message out to all of our representatives. She actually took the time and hand-carried it around to folks and explained to them what the bill was all about.”
In January 2007, Mehlville Fire Protection District Board Chairman Aaron Hilmer and Treasurer Bonnie Stegman voted to place Proposition TD, or Tax Decrease, on the April 3, 2007 ballot. Then-Secretary Dan Ottoline participated in the meeting by telephone and was unable to vote under the provisions of the Missouri Open Meetings and Records Law.
Tax Cut Referendum Pulled
The ballot language for Proposition TD stated, “Shall the voters of the Mehlville Fire Protection District decrease the general tax levy available to the district by 45 cents per $100 of assessed valuation? This proposition is based upon the 2006 assessed valuation for the district and equates to a total tax reduction of approximately $9.75 million per year. The foregoing shall not be subject to any tax-rate reduction rollback.”
Concord resident Dennis Skelton filed a lawsuit February 7, 2007 seeking the removal of the tax rate decrease measure from the ballot.
Skelton, who ran as a write-in candidate for the fire district Board of Directors last April, was defeated by Ed Ryan, who now serves as board secretary.
In a ruling issued February 9, 2007, Judge James R. Hartenbach ordered the Board of Election Commissioners to remove Proposition TD from the April 3 ballot. After Hartenbach removed Proposition TD from the ballot last year, Lembke said he would introduce legislation to allow an elected board to place a tax rate decrease before voters.
But after further studying the issue and at the behest of numerous fire districts, Lembke said he had changed his mind and would not introduce any legislation that would allow voters to lower their taxes.
However, Bivins said, “Jim is the primary co-sponsor on [my] bill this year and he’s in total agreement that a fire district board of directors ought to be authorized to put a tax decrease on a ballot for the voters to vote on.”
No Legal Reason Given
Because Hartenbach did not provide any legal reason for removing Proposition TD from the ballot, Bivins requested a legal opinion last June from Attorney General Jay Nixon about whether “a fire protection district within the state of Missouri may vote to reduce its current tax-rate ceiling.”
In a September 4 letter, Deputy Attorney General Karen King Mitchell cited Hartenbach’s ruling and told Bivins the attorney general’s office “must decline to provide the opinion you request.”
Her letter stated, “In an order dated Feb. 9, 2007, the St. Louis County Circuit Court prohibited the St. Louis County Election Board from placing such a proposition on the April 3, 2007, ballot in the Mehlville Fire Protection District. … Because the issue has been decided by a circuit court, we must decline to respond to your request.”
After Nixon’s office declined to render an opinion, Bivins said he was disappointed and “I would be amenable to introducing legislation to allow people to vote to lower their taxes.”
He added, “Well, I just think that allowing the citizens to vote on decreasing the levy that they’re charged by a fire district is their right … and we ought to allow the directors of fire boards to give them that right.”
Mike Anthony is executive editor of Call Newspapers in suburban St. Louis, Missouri. This article originally appeared in Call Newspapers on January 23, 2008. Reprinted with permission.