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One fire district merger, 10 bond, tax increases on ballot Tuesday

By Susan Weich, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Aug. 02--The proposed merger of two fire agencies in north St. Louis County is one of 11 fire and emergency service measures voters will decide in the St. Louis area on Tuesday.

Jennings officials are asking residents to approve combining the city's fire department with the neighboring Riverview Fire Protection District.

If approved, taxes for Jennings property owners would go up $2.50 for each $100 of assessed valuation, City Clerk Cheryl Balke said. On a $50,000 house, that would cost a homeowner about $240 more a year.

Jennings and Riverview both have had paid fire departments since the mid-1940s. Jennings currently employs 13 firefighters and has one station. Riverview employs 22 firefighters and has two engine houses.

Jennings protects about 14,000 residents in 3.9 square miles. Riverview covers 11.5 square miles, including Bellefontaine Neighbors, Glasgow Village, the village of Riverview and part of Moline Acres. The district's population is about 23,000.

Balke said the city is in financial trouble due to a downturn in revenue and can no longer afford to run the department. Several public meetings have been held to inform residents. The move would save the city about $750,000 a year.

Balke said this year the city has a $350,000 budget deficit, so if the merger is approved, the money would be used to balance the budget, increase current services and replenish reserves.

"If it doesn't get approved we're going to have to look for other ways to cut the budget," she said.

The measure requires a simple majority to pass; it does not need the approval of taxpayers in the Riverview Fire Protection District.

None of the Jennings employees would lose their jobs if the merger is approved, Balke said.

FLORISSANT VALLEY FIRE

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Since 2008, a drop in home values has meant about $1 million less annually for the Florissant Valley Fire Protection District, said Chief Scott Seppelt. In addition, medical insurance reimbursements for transporting patients dropped an additional $100,000 last year.

To make ends meet, the district has been tapping its reserves, Seppelt said.

The district wants to increase its property tax rate by 40 cents for each $100 of assessed valuation. If passed, taxes on a $100,000 home would increase by $76 a year. It requires a simple majority.

"This year we've cut or frozen every line item on our budget with the exception of training and vehicle maintenance," he said. "This is basically to keep us in the black."

In addition, the district wants to borrow $7.1 million to buy and equip new ambulances and fire trucks. The bond issue would not trigger a tax increase.

Seppelt said the district's three front-line ambulances have 100,000 miles on them, and the three backup units are at 180,000 miles. The district's reserve fire engine is 20 years old.

"We need to continue to purchase the equipment the guys need," he said.

HAZELWOOD FIRE

The city of Hazelwood is operating with a $1.7 million deficit, and officials hope a quarter-cent sales tax dedicated to fire and EMS services will generate about $1.1 million annually.

Fire Chief Dave Radel said in addition to the recession, the city is still trying to recover from the closure of the Ford assembly plant.

Tax hike proposals in two other fire protection districts -- Florissant and Robertson -- also could affect city coffers because parts of the city are protected by those agencies, and the city pays the difference in cost for the residents in those areas.

The measure requires a simple majority for approval.

LINCOLN COUNTY AMBULANCE

Lincoln County Ambulance District Chief Administrator Ray Antonocci said the 640-square-mile district needs more coverage, so officials hope voters approve a 35-cent property tax increase.

It would cost the owner of a $100,000 home an additional $66.50 a year. The tax hike needs a simple majority to pass.

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The increased funding would allow the district to build three new bases, buy three new ambulances and hire 18 paramedics, he said.

The district now runs five ambulances out of four bases, and the average response time is nearly 14 minutes. With the expansion, Antonocci said they hope to reduce response to eight minutes.

MARYLAND HEIGHTS FIRE

Outdated facilities and equipment are the reason the Maryland Heights Fire Protection District wants to borrow $19 million over the next several years, said Fire Chief Steve Olshwanger.

The bond issue would raise property tax rates by 24 cents for each $100 assessed valuation, so the owner of a $100,000 home would pay $45.60 more a year. It requires a four-sevenths majority to pass.

The district would issue the bonds in phases and initially use the money to rebuild the fire house on Dorsett Road, which was built in 1971. The new structure would accommodate the coed work force and bigger fire trucks.

The district also would renovate its second fire house on Schuetz Road. The district needs more storage to house things like its heavy rescue equipment, he said, which is currently kept off site.

PATTONVILLE FIRE

The Pattonville Fire Protection District is asking for a 45-cent tax increase to support its ambulance service.

If passed, the tax on a home worth $125,000 home would increase by about $107 a year. A simple majority is required for approval.

Chief Terry Loehrer, said the additional revenue would go for everything related to EMS, including salaries, benefits, tools, equipment and supplies.

He said the district's budget was hit hard by a decision by the Missouri Tax Commission in favor of Harrah's Casinos, which had contested its taxes.

"We had to refund back to the casino $1.5 million, which is the driving force behind our $1.2 million deficit this year," he said.

He said the last rate increase for the ambulance fund was in 1986. The hike would raise $3.3 million a year, which Loehrer said was needed not only to maintain service but to build reserves to guard against further erosion of property values due to the Bridgeton landfill.

ROBERTSON FIRE

Like many of the other fire protection districts in north St. Louis County, Robertson has seen a drop in revenue since 2008 because of the downturn in the housing market.

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Fire Chief Don Miner said the district has been dipping into its reserves -- about $730,000 in 2013 and is projected to be about the same amount over budget this year.

The district is seeking a tax hike of 50 cents for each $100 of assessed valuation. An owner of a home worth $75,000 would pay $71.25 a year more in taxes.

Miner said the increase would be used to maintain service.

"Basically, costs continue to rise and assessments are dropping, which is why we need the additional revenue," he said.

The measure requires a simple majority to pass.

WARRENTON FIRE

The Warrenton Fire Protection District has four fire stations, three of them manned by volunteers. The main fire house is staffed by six paid firefighters 24 hours a day during the week.

If voters approve a 15-cent tax increase, more firefighters would be hired and staffing would be 24/7 at the main house, said firefighter Matt Dabbs. The tax increase, which needs a simple majority for passage, would cost the owner of a $100,000 home an additional $28.50 a year.

Dabbs said when the house is staffed, firefighters are on the trucks and out the door in less than a minute, but when volunteers have to respond, it may be as long as seven minutes before firefighters are on the way.

In addition, the district would hire an assistant chief/fire marshal to help with the fire prevention bureau, inspections and fire education, Dabbs said.

The money also would fund the completion of the district's training facility, which was started three years ago but has been stalled by a lack of money.

WENTZVILLE FIRE

Officials in the Wentzville Fire Protection District are seeking a 25-cent property tax increase and a $30 million bond issue as part of a five-year plan to meet the needs of the growing population of the western part of St. Charles County.

The 25-cent proposal needs a simple majority and would increase taxes on a $200,000 home by $95 a year. The bond issue needs four-sevenths approval and would increase the tax rate two to three cents for each $100 of assessed valuation, for an additional $7.60 to $11.40 a year in taxes.

The two proposals would enable the district to build two new fire stations and buy the needed apparatus, hire 24 additional firefighters and a full-time training officer. Fire Chief Mike Marlo said all of the new hires would be cross-trained as paramedics.

The expanded coverage would allow firefighters to reduce response times to calls.

The funding also would allow for the renovation of two of the current fire houses, which currently can barely accommodate the larger fire trucks, Marlo said.

Older equipment also would be replaced at those stations.

To learn more about the Missouri primary elections, visit our Voters Guide at STLtoday.com/votersguide.

Susan Weich is a reporter at the Post-Dispatch. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

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(c)2014 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Visit the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at www.stltoday.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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