A judge in St. Louis County, Missouri has ruled that trustees for a local fire protection district may ask voters to raise the district’s maximum tax rate, but not to lower it.
Judge James R. Hartenbach ordered a tax cut referendum off the April 3 ballot.
The referendum would have given voters the chance to reduce the maximum allowable tax rate in the Mehlville Fire Protection District by 45 cents for each $100 of assessed valuation, reducing the fire district’s allowable tax collections by about $9.75 million.
Unions Opposed Tax Cuts
On February 7, a resident represented by an attorney for the local firefighters union sued to have the referendum removed from the ballot, and on February 8 Hartenbach sided with the union attorney.
“The public employee unions have utter contempt for you and me, a total entitlement mentality,” said Aaron Hilmer, chairman of the fire district board and the main force, with fellow board member Bonnie Stegman, in putting the tax cut referendum on the ballot.
“I’m not anti-union–my father and grandfather were union–but these public-sector unions have made an art of controlling this,” Hilmer said.
Since joining the three-member board in 2005, Hilmer and Stegman have slashed spending while improving services.
Spending $7 Million Less
The budget for the fire district in 2005 was $25.5 million, Hilmer said. The 2007 budget is $18.4 million.
Because the fire district is functioning with so much less money, Hilmer said, he and Stegman decided to ask the district’s 81,000 registered voters if the district’s maximum allowable tax rate should be lowered.
“We’ve cut spending and improved services,” Hilmer said. “We have increased paramedic coverage by 200 percent. Before we were elected there were seven fire trucks, a heavy ambulance, and five [regular] ambulances. Paramedics were only on ambulances. We’ve hired people who are cross-trained [for firefighting and paramedic duties] and put medical equipment on everything.
“We’ve built a new firehouse, bought two new fire trucks [and] three new ambulances, and upgraded staff cars and medical equipment, all with less money than we were spending before,” Hilmer said.
Employee Benefits Were Lavish
Where was the money going? Hilmer checks off a partial list:
- Every office employee received a $950 clothing allowance paid at Christmas.
- Office staff received 30 paid sick days and could roll them over from year to year. “People have left here with more than $55,000 in accrued sick days,” Hilmer said.
- The fire chief was paid more than the governor of Missouri, about $125,000, not including benefits. He also received 73 paid days off per year. Plus, “The chief quit at 55 with a $750,000 one-time pension check,” Hilmer said.
- Firefighters contributed nothing to their pensions.
Firefighters Sued Board
The new fire board has reined in all those benefits, including starting a defined contribution plan to replace the existing defined benefit plan for new hires and requiring firefighters to contribute to the pensions.
The board also has rolled back disability benefits. Those moves have sparked lawsuits by the firefighters.
In February an appellate court affirmed a lower court ruling dismissing a lawsuit against the fire protection district by Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. That lawsuit challenged the district’s decision to eliminate current disability benefits from the pension plan and create a new plan.
On March 12, Attorney John Goffstein, who represents Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, told Call Newspapers he will ask the Missouri Supreme Court to review the lawsuit’s dismissal.
A second lawsuit, challenging the creation of the defined contribution plan, has not been decided.
One close observer of the Mehlville Fire Protection District has been Mike Anthony, executive editor of Call Newspapers, which covers Mehlville and other St. Louis suburbs.
In a March 7 story, Anthony reported the firefighters are very well paid, with 94 of 122 district employees who worked full-time during 2006 receiving salary and benefit packages of more than $100,000, according to information compiled by the district.
Anthony noted the decision to throw the tax cut referendum off the ballot “won’t enhance the reputation of the firefighters in the community. Their salaries in comparison to the average person’s are quite exorbitant.
“They’ve cut spending and improved services,” Anthony said of the fire district board. “I think it’s a great story. We didn’t receive any calls or letters saying, ‘No, I don’t want to reduce my taxes.’ I’ve been in journalism 25 years, and I’ve never encountered something like this.”
Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is managing editor of Budget & Tax News.