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LSL Fire Protection District grapples with solutions to money woes

Lake Saint Louis FireLake Saint Louis Fire Protection District officials say the district needs more money to provide adequate fire protection to residents.

Fire Chief Clinton Gussner, firemen and members of the district’s Board of Directors told the city’s Board of Aldermen on March 21 that the district is exploring placing a tax increase on the August 2 ballot. The deadline for placing issues on the ballot is May 24.

The district also may examine issuing more bonds to pay for capital improvements such as trucks and equipment, and whether to consolidate with a neighboring fire district.

Gussner and Wentzville Fire Protection officials — including Wentzville Fire Chief Michael Marlo — discussed their fire departments with city officials and residents at a board work session. Both fire protection districts serve portions of Lake Saint Louis– the Lake Saint Louis Fire Protection District has two stations that cover much of the older part of the city and the Wentzville Fire Protection District fire station in the city serves much of the area to the south.

The districts are a study in contrast. The Lake Saint Louis district may be facing a financial breaking point, while the much larger Wentzville district is implementing major expansion plans funded by a $30 million bond issue and a 25-cent tax increase approved in 2014.

The Lake Saint Louis district, founded in 1972 and largely following the original boundaries of the city, now provides 24/7 service with aging equipment and a shortage of personnel, district officials say.

Bordered by Interstate 70 to the north and I-64 to the west, the district serves about 7 square miles that includes portions of Wentzville, O’Fallon and parts of unincorporated St. Charles County. Lake Saint Louis employs eight firefighters along with a fire chief, three captains and a fire marshal.

The district is now spending more money than it brings in, with an operating deficit of $50,000 in 2014, and $20,000 to $40,000 annual deficits for several years before that, district officials said. Its current tax rate is 52 cents per $100 assessed valuation, one of the lowest rates in the county.

Mike Pendergast, chairman of the district’s board of directors, said the board is working with staff and a citizen advisory committee to examine options including a tax increase, bond issue or consolidation.

Placing a tax increase measure on the August ballot would allow the district to collect new tax revenue in January 2017 if voters approve the tax increase. The district would not see any new revenue until January 2018 from a tax increased approved in November.

Gussner said the district has discussed a tax increase from “10 cents on up” but has made no decision. Voters also may be asked to approve a bond issue, phased in over time, to provide money to buy equipment.

Advisory committee members already have said they want a “stand-alone department” not allied with another fire department, Gussner said.  For now, the Wentzville district isn’t stepping in.

“I want everybody to understand that the residents of the Lake Saint Louis Fire Protection District made it quite clear that they want their local control and we respect that,” Marlo said. “So there are no plans at all for any type of merger or consolidation.”

State statutes are specific about a consolidation, which would call for separate votes in both districts, Marlo said.

Gussner said the district’s financial difficulties stem largely from the impact of Missouri Senate Bill 711 passed in 2008, which had a negative impact on a 17-cent tax increase voters approved the same year.

Senate Bill 711 mandates that all taxing jurisdictions must roll back their tax rates to counter reassessment increases. It means government growth is limited in reassessment years and subject to a voter-approved ceiling for a rate in non-reassessment years.

“We actually only saw four cents of revenue. So the voters who approved 17 cents only paid four cents more,” said Justin Darnell, a paramedic and emergency medical technician who also participated in the March 21 briefing.

“We didn’t get to see it because of the perfect storm of circumstance,” Darnell said, referring to the recession, which also caused drops in assessed valuation.

In all, the district has lost $2.3 million in revenue, Gussner said. The district still provided  expanded service with only four additional cents of revenue, he said.

“We’ve reached a point right now where we can’t do that anymore,” Darnell said. “The only option is to find a way to increase revenue or we’re going to have to reduce services.”

The district’s equipment is old. Two of its fire trucks are 18 years old and a reserve truck is 25 years old. Repairs are expensive because parts are hard to come by, district officials said.

Much of the district’s rescue equipment came with the trucks and is also 18 years old. Rescue and personal gear worn by firefighters is also wearing out or doesn’t work as well as more modern equipment, Gussner said.

Darnell said one example of the problem posed by outdated gear is that motor vehicles now aren’t made with the same materials that they were 18 years ago. At accident scenes, Darnell said Lake Saint Louis firefighters see equipment used by Wentzville firefighters that “cuts through these metal posts like butter and we’re still sitting there cutting and cutting on the same one.”

Darnell added that firefighters killed on duty may face the loss of some line-of-duty benefits from the state and federal government if they were using old equipment.

Lake Saint Louis fire officials also said they’ve relied heavily on mutual aid agreements with neighboring fire departments to assist them.

Meanwhile, Marlo outlined plans for the Wentzville district, which covers 88 square miles and is bounded by Warren County to the west, Lincoln County to the north and serves areas south of I-70. It serves portions of O’Fallon, Lake Saint Louis, Dardenne Prairie and the villages of Flint Hill and Josephville.

A few years ago, Marlo said, the Wentzville district faced some of the same challenges now facing the Lake Saint Louis district. The Wentzville district was looking at tremendous growth [24 subdivisions have been added to the district in the last year] along with the need to replace aging equipment – but were basically operating on a deficit budget, he said.

The district was able to make its case to the public, which approved the tax increase and bond issue in August 2014. The district’s tax rate is now 76 cents per $100 assessed valuation.

The Wentzville district is adding two new firehouses and 24 firefighters and equipment. One fire station is being added at 8200 Orf Road near Hwy. N, and the district also is adding paramedics to its trucks.

Marlo said residents should be proud of the job that the Lake Saint Louis Fire Protection District has done despite the circumstances.

“These guys have truly done everything they can to keep their fire trucks running and keep that equipment working,” he said. “We’ve all heard the term ‘duct tape.’ These guys know how to use it.”

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