Suburban St. Louis Fire District Would Allow Voters to Cut Taxes

Published March 1, 2009

A suburban St. Louis fire protection district is moving to ask voters to pass a tax rate decrease referendum. A policy vote by the board expected in January would place the measure on the April election ballot.

Mehlville Fire District Board Chairman Aaron Hilmer said he is asking the board to put before voters a “proposal to permanently reduce [lower] the district’s general-fund tax rate ceiling and a proposal to permanently reduce the district’s pension-fund tax rate ceiling.

“It’s going to be comparable to what we had previously wanted to ask voters for in April of 2007 [approximately $9.75 million a year],” said Hilmer. “We’ll vote on [the proposals] in mid-January to place them on the April 7 ballot.”

An earlier tax decrease proposal was removed from the 2007 ballot by a court order issued February 9, 2007 by Judge James R. Hartenbach. He gave no legal grounds for his ruling.

New Law Clears Way

As a result of legislation signed in July 2008 by Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt (R), the fire district now has explicit authority to place tax rate decrease measures before the local voters. The bill was sponsored by then-Senate President Pro Tem Michael Gibbons (R-Kirkwood).

“I commend the members of the Mehlville Fire Protection District for working to protect taxpayers by creating a plan to put lower tax ceilings to a vote of the people. A sweeping property tax reform law I sponsored earlier this year [SB 711] specifically says nothing shall prevent districts from lowering their ceiling,” Gibbons said in a press statement in late 2008.

“The law took effect August 28, meaning the days of taxpayers getting hit with tax increases because of reassessment are over,” continued Gibbons. “Taxing boards must now roll back their tax rates.

“We also ended the practice of applying voter-approved increases to new reassessments, stopping double whammies on taxpayers,” Gibbons added. “Plus, we helped all taxpayers by requiring a projected tax liability [be sent] along with their reassessment notices, letting taxpayers know months before their taxes are due what reassessment means for the pocketbook.”

Prior Tax Hike Unpopular

The push to roll back taxes in the Mehlville Fire Protection District started after a union-backed board of directors in 2004 lobbied for and received what critics said was an unnecessary $35 million five-year tax rate increase. In the next election, voters elected Hilmer and another reform-minded candidate, Bonnie Stegman, to the three-member board.

They have cut millions of dollars of spending while replacing an expensive defined-benefit pension plan with a defined-contribution plan, allowing employees to have Health Saving Accounts that give them more control over health insurance costs, and doubling the number of paramedics employed, all within a “no tax hike needed” budget.

“We have [already] proven it’s possible to increase services while decreasing taxes by instituting private-sector reforms in the public sector,” said Hilmer. “Our example has proven the answer isn’t always more money.”

John W. Skorburg ([email protected]) is associate editor of Budget & Tax News.