The Lake Saint Louis Fire Protection District will ask voters to approve two propositions this August that may significantly raise taxes in order to address the district’s mounting financial problems.
In May, the district’s Board of Directors approved placing two separate measures on the Aug. 2 ballot: an $8 million bond issue [approximately 22 cents] and an 18-cent tax increase. Proceeds would help the district pay off debt, acquire new equipment and hire more firefighters.
Voter approval of the two propositions conceivably could add up to around 41 cents per $100 assessed valuation to the district’s tax rate, which is currently among the lowest of St. Charles County’s professional fire departments. The district’s tax rate, set by the end of September each year by the board, was 55 cents per $100 assessed valuation in 2015. Placing a tax increase measure on the August ballot would allow the district to collect new tax revenue in January 2017 if approved. Bond issue revenue could be available in 90 days.
But the district’s board may opt to sell bonds gradually, perhaps $4 million to $6 million up front, if the bond issue is approved, said Lake Saint Louis Fire Chief Clinton Gussner. That means the overall tax rate set each year by the end of September would not increase to the full 22 cents authorized if the bonds are approved. The 18-cent tax increase would be added immediately.
“We want to try to release the bonds where we’re lessening the burden on the taxpayers,” Gussner said. A million dollars in bonds may add three cents to the tax rate; $2 million adds about 5.5 cents, he explained.
The 20-year bond issue proposition requires a four-sevenths (57.14 percent) majority for passage, while the tax increase proposition requires a simple majority. Missouri law requires a supermajority vote to approve general obligation bond issues. Either a two-thirds (66.67 percent) or four-sevenths (57.14 percent) majority vote is required for passage, depending on when the election is held.
Gussner said proceeds from the bond issue, called “Proposition Safety,” would be used to consolidate the district’s two fire stations into one and pay for capital improvements, such as replacing the district’s aging fire trucks and firefighter equipment. The tax increase, called “Proposition Life,” will largely be used to pay down an operating deficit that could reach more than $200,000 next year, as well as to hire additional firefighters and staff, he 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. The bill mandates that all taxing jurisdictions must roll back their tax rate to counter reassessment increases. The bill limits government growth in reassessment years, and tax rates up to a voter-approved ceiling in non-reassessment years.
For the Lake Saint Louis district, the bill meant that its tax rate was set at 36 cents per $100 assessed valuation in 2009, rolling it back from 49 cents. Instead of adding the 17-cent increase to 49 cents, it was added to 36 cents, meaning voters who approved 17 cents paid only four cents more that year.
Along with drops in assessed valuation prompted by the recession during those years, the district has lost $2.3 million in revenue, Gussner said – and not having money meant equipment couldn’t be replaced. Two of the district’s 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 is also 18 years old because it came with the trucks, Gussner said, causing district firefighters to rely on other, better-equipped fire departments for help in situations such as extracting people from motor vehicles. “If there is a malfunction, if something breaks, we just don’t have the resources or funding to do any major repairs,” he said.
Proposition Safety will pay for replacing that equipment. Gussner said replacing trucks may be expensive – a basic pumper truck these days can cost $350,000-$400,000 and isn’t designed for the 1,300 calls that trucks in Lake Saint Louis make annually.
“And were going to get busier,” Gussner said.
The other priority involves possibly combining the district’s two existing stations – Station 1 at 2533 Lake Saint Louis Boulevard, and Station 2 at 26 South Ellerman Road – into one station. Both are expensive to maintain because they were built to residential, not commercial, standards.
Gussner said the district may look at the feasibility of a piece of property it owns near the Bent Oak Apartments along Lake Saint Louis Boulevard in the northeast part of the city as a possible station location. Locating a station there would allow the district to respond to calls throughout its coverage area in about five minutes, instead of as long as an 11- to 13-minute current response time in some parts of the city, Gussner said.
The location of a Wentzville Fire Protection District station at 8200 Orf Road will also help in coverage, he said.
“The problem we have is that we’re at the point that we have to replace everything,” Gussner said. “All our buildings need to be gutted and rehabbed, all our trucks need to be redone, all our hoses, ladders, firefighting tools, extra equipment needs replacing.”
Proposition Life, the tax increase, will be used by the district to pay down its deficit and add several positions, bringing staffing up to the accepted minimum of four firefighters per truck. The department currently has 13 open positions, including 11 firefighters. Gussner, who also mans a fire truck, would become a full-time chief and the district would add an administrative assistant.
“The biggest thing is if we have a $200,000 or more shortfall, we’re going to have a reduction in services, a reduction in manpower and a reduction pretty much everywhere across the board because we can’t afford to go into the negative in the future,” Gussner said.
If voters approve the measures, some changes will not be quick. It may take several years to find a new station location and acquire equipment. In the meantime, the district also plans to be more aggressive in seeking grants to help offset costs, he said.
If voters reject the measures, the district may have to look at other options.
The option of merging with a neighboring fire protection district looks unlikely right now, however. The much larger Wentzville Fire Protection District covers 88 square miles and is bounded by Warren County to the west, Lincoln County to the north and areas south of Interstate 70, including portions of Lake Saint Louis, Dardenne Prairie and the villages of Flint Hill and Josephsville.
Faced with its own financial issues, the Wentzville district is implementing major expansion plans that include a new Orf Road fire station, funded by a $30 million bond issue and a 25-cent tax increase approved in 2014.
Wentzville and Lake Saint Louis officials have downplayed any merger plans. “Financially they [Wentzville] couldn’t take us on, we’re too much of a burden,” Gussner said. The O’Fallon Fire Protection District is in the same position, he added.