St. Louis County Fire Protection District Says It Cuts Taxes Amid Controversy | Law and order

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HAZELWOOD — The fire district that serves parts of Hazelwood and Bridgeton, embroiled in a controversy over district spending, said this week it would cut residential tax rates by nearly 60 percent.

Robertson Fire Protection District’s proposal comes as citizens’ group talks about recalling Robertson board members, saying officials were lining their pockets improperly and dooming the town of Hazelwood to bankruptcy with their spending.

Robertson Fire Chief Maynard Howell denied any impropriety and did not apologize for the district’s higher costs. He said the issue instead comes down to how residents want to treat firefighters. He acknowledged that firefighters are well paid, saying he wants to attract them to the neighborhood. He wants them to stay long enough to get to know the residents and maybe make a career here.

“We’re not trying to hide anything,” he said. “There is nothing to hide.”

The district covers about 16 miles and includes about 6,000 residents and 600 businesses, Howell said.

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The part that includes Hazelwood has been the subject of a fight for years, with Hazelwood officials saying the contract, which requires the city to pay any fire district tax that exceeds 99 cents for every $100 of assessed value, obligates the city ​​to cut jobs and services to avoid bankruptcy.

The city stopped paying the district in 2018, triggering a lawsuit from Robertson. Both parties are now in mediation.

In June 2021, the group of citizens, Citizens to save Hazelwood and the fire departments, formed after a series of attempts by Robertson to push through tax increases, chairwoman Jennifer Guyton said. The organization was funded, in part, by approximately $5,600 from a group formed to support a sales tax increase that would have gone to the nearby Hazelwood Fire Department, money raised at the originated from the Hazelwood Industrial Development Authority, records show.

Guyton’s group was highly critical of Robertson and district officials. At a February 2 city council meeting in Hazelwood posted on FacebookGuyton allowed 38 minutes presentation featuring the group’s six-month investigation of Robertson.

Guyton said the district was bankrupting Hazelwood with out-of-control spending to benefit district insiders and had one of the highest tax rates in St. Louis County.

Guyton dismissed the idea that Hazelwood’s tax increment funding deals were to blame for budget problems, saying there hadn’t been any new ones since 2008. She said tax breaks were still ongoing, but bringing in business and revenue through permit and license fees. .

Robertson, she said, buys more expensive equipment, retires it earlier than other districts, then resells it — SUVs, for example — to insiders at substantial discounts. She also said employees receive “huge perks,” including lavish salaries and other perks.

Guyton pointed out that a collective bargaining agreement requires firefighters to be at least the fifth-highest earner in the county.

Guyton said a recall from the district fire board would allow a new board to disband the district or merge with the Hazelwood Fire Department.

But on Wednesday, the district announced a proposal to cut the residential tax rate from $2.41 to 99 cents, saying it was made possible by the expiration of a tax increase financing plan covering 370 Park and the St. Louis Outlet Mall.

Robertson officials said the move, which would take effect next year, would save the town of Hazelwood about $638,000 in taxes. The owners of Bridgeton would each pay hundreds of dollars less.

In an interview with the Post-Dispatch, Howell said the district is making other changes, including ending the policy of selling used vehicles to current or former employees.

On Thursday, after Robertson’s announcement, Hazelwood Town Manager Matt Zimmerman said, “It certainly appears they’ve taken the concerns of the town and the citizens’ committee seriously.”

“Whether or not that brings substantial changes to the situation, I don’t know,” he added.

Zimmerman, in a phone interview earlier this year, said talking about bankruptcy was not hyperbole.

“In my opinion, it’s inevitable,” he said. “It’s a question of when.”

Originally slated for this year, the $6 million stimulus has now postponed bankruptcy until 2024, Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman said fire district payments have increased from $1.5 million in 1997 to $6 million expected in the coming fiscal year, including money that goes to the fire protection district. Florissant Valley fires.

“We tried to work with them on long-term solutions and got pushed back,” he said.

Howell disputed this, saying city officials had refused to work on a solution.

Guyton said the rate cut was “clearly neutral” for Robertson, meaning it would have no effect on income or expenses.

Howell said the anti-Robertson group was receiving information from a feuding ex-employee and accused him of “working hand in glove with the city.”

Guyton and Zimmerman said the citizens’ group is independent of the city.

Guyton’s group is suing Robertson, claiming the district is violating state Sunshine Law by not turning over public records. That lawsuit is ongoing, but Howell said he hired a part-time administrative assistant to make up for the dozens of requests for documents from the citizens’ group.

Bridgeton Mayor Terry Briggs said the rate cut would have “minimal impact” in his town. Robertson’s part of town includes a small number of residential properties and the neighborhood is one of four that serve the town, he said.

“We’re not trying to hide anything. There’s nothing to hide.

Maynard Howell, Robertson Fire Protection District Chief

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