Plaintiffs Proliferate in Pursuit of Politician Pay

22 Mar

On the last day of 2015, Bruce King, Democrat former elected public administrator for Jefferson County who was defeated for re-election in 2012, filed a lawsuit in Jefferson County court against the county, alleging that the county charter had been misinterpreted and that he was not paid as much money as he should have been. The lawsuit demanded back pay and retroactive credits towards retirement.

At the time, observers including me speculated that King was merely a front man, one who no longer had a political career to protect, who was filing the suit on behalf of other greedy incumbent elected officials. Well that belief has been affirmed, because a slew of current and former county elected officials added their names to the suit in January of this year. Most notable, I would say, is county executive Ken Waller, a Republican, who I hear is actively pursuing another job at this time, with two years left in his term. Here is the rest of the list of new plaintiffs:

  • Mark Abel – Democrat deceased former treasurer. His wife is also on the suit, presumably to collect his posthumous windfall.
  • Chuck Banks – Democrat former county commissioner.
  • Marlene Castle – Democrat former recorder of deeds.
  • Randy Holman – Democrat former assessor and current appointed county clerk (put in place by Waller).
  • Pat Lamping – Democrat former county commissioner.
  • Beth Mahn – Democrat current collector.
  • Linda Nees – Democrat former treasurer.
  • Terry Roesch – Democrat outgoing assessor.
  • Dorothy Stafford – Democrat former auditor.
  • Wes Wagner – Democrat former county clerk, who left in the middle of his term for a private sector job.
  • Steve Farmer – Republican current public administrator.

We must condemn the above officials, all of whom are/were making $70-85,000, who knew when they took their jobs what they would be paid, but are now going to the courts to attempt to extract money from taxpayers, in many cases well after they left office. But let us praise those elected officials (who served prior to 2017) who have apparently chosen not to join this lawsuit (let me know if I missed someone):

  • Richard Carter – Republican current assessor.
  • Debbie Dunnegan – Republican current recorder of deeds.
  • Forrest Wegge – Democrat current prosecutor.
  • Michael Reuter – Republican current circuit court clerk.
  • Howard Wagner – Democrat former circuit court clerk.
  • Glenn Boyer – Democrat former sheriff.
  • Survivors of Ed Kemp, Democrat deceased former county commissioner.

The plaintiffs are citing section 7.7.3.11 of the county charter (page 38), which says that “the annual salary of every elected County Officer is not to be less than the annual salary of the holder of the equivalent office in a first-class non-charter county.” The suit then goes on the cite the salaries of elected officeholders in Boone County (which is where Columbia is). Never mind that there are 13 other first-class non-charter counties they could have chosen to compare with JeffCo.The lawsuit says:

“The clear intent also was to provide that…salaries would be adjusted upward to match those of office holders of the highest paying first class non-charter county.”

Doesn’t sound clear to me at all. In general, this seems like a poorly thought out and drafted provision.

All told, this lawsuit could cost the county over $600,000, according to the Leader. This is in addition to the legal costs, as the county has hired an outside law firm to deal with this case (see page 22).

Speaking of lawyers, local attorney and JeffCo GOP apparatchik Derrick Good is one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys in this case. He even helped write the damn county charter that he is trying to exploit via loophole in true lawyerly fashion. Did he help draft the provision in question? It is sad (sad!) to see several supposed conservatives joining in on this effort to divert taxpayer money to their bank accounts.

April 4 Ballot Chock Full ‘O Taxes

19 Mar

April 15 is usually thought of as tax day, since that’s the deadline for filing your federal income taxes. But tax day in Jefferson County might come 11 days early this year. There are many tax proposals on the municipal election ballot. Obviously, each of these taxes only pertains to people living within the boundaries of the listed political entity. Let’s take a look at the proposals:

We will start with Byrnes Mill, which is swinging for the fences with three tax increases, one property tax hike of 40 cents per $100 valuation and two half-cent sales taxes.

byrnestax

Byrnes Mill’s current tax rates are as follows:

  • Property tax:
    • 40.35 cents per $100  – so they want to DOUBLE it. If passed, Byrnes Mill would go from second lowest to second highest property tax among cities in the county, behind Pevely’s 88.77 cents.
  • Sales tax:
    • 8.35% – total sales tax (including state, county, ambulance district, etc). If Props R and I both pass, Byrnes Mill would have the highest total sales tax rate in the county outside of a special taxing district (CID, TDD).

Byrnes Mill makes its case for the tax hikes here. The property tax is intended for police, and requires 2/3 approval to pass (this could be intended to make up for lost traffic ticket revenue thanks to SB5).

Jefferson County Library

The library is requesting a 8 cent increase in its 20 cents/$100 property tax. The library makes it case here. Districts like to forecast dire scenarios if tax proposals fail, and the library does that here, stating that one of its three locations could need to close in 5 years.

Windsor School District

This is one of those “no new tax” bond issues that keeps the tax levy the same, but extends it for additional years in the future, in this case 8 years for a $14.75 million bond issue. The district makes it case for the proposition here. The Leader reports that Windsor voters passed bond issues in 1998, 2001, 2006, and 2011.

Hillsboro School District

Another “no new tax” bond issue, this one for $12 million. Here is their campaign literature. Bond issues require a 4/7 majority for approval.

Festus School District

Festus is looking to convert 35 cents/$100 of debt service levy (which has an expiration date) to operating levy (which is permanent). Festus’ overall property tax rate, lowest among JeffCo school districts, would remain at $3.7407/$100 valuation. Plans for the tax proceeds are found here. Festus did something very similar just two years ago (page 3); it passed by a wide margin.

Rockwood and Meramec school districts, which cover small pieces of JeffCo, also have “no new tax” bond measures on the ballot for $95 million and $11.75 million, respectively. Rockwood voters passed a $68 million no tax bond issue just two years ago.

Festus Fireworks

Increase the business license fee on sellers of fireworks and firecrackers from one hundred and forty dollars ($140.00) plus three percent (3%) of the gross receipts to one thousand, five hundred dollars ($1,500)?

$1,500 minus $140 equals $1,360. By my calculations, $1,360 is 3% of $45,333. So if a fireworks stand in Festus brings in less than that amount, this is an increase in cost. It could just be a simplification rather than a revenue raiser.

Rock Fire

I talked about this a bit here. Rock Fire wants to increase its property tax by 50 cents/$100 valuation. Rock Fire’s current levy is 76.32 cents per $100, so this is a large increase. Rock Fire has the 10th lowest tax levy of 14 JeffCo fire districts (though Rock also has a sales tax); if this measure passes Rock would be 3rd highest. Rock Fire is pushing this really hard through mailers and door-to-door visits by firefighters. Here is their Facebook page, and here is the letter the chief sent out. A Facebook page called Whole Truth is examining with a critical eye Rock Fire’s claims that it needs more revenue.

Saline Valley Fire

Saline is asking for a 25 cents per $100 valuation increase in its property tax. Saline already has by far the highest property tax among fire districts in the county, at $1.575 per $100. The next highest is Cedar Hill Fire at $1.3826, and the majority of JeffCo fire districts levy less than $1. Saline does not have a sales tax, however.(Note: Saline Valley is the product of the merger of two fire districts. In 2008, by a simple majority, voters approved this merger. I think we need to see some more mergers). I was unable to find any campaign materials for this tax online.

I have not mentioned all of the local Proposition V listings on the ballot. These props, which every entity in the county is trying to pass, allows them to keep collecting sales taxes on private and out-of-state vehicle purchases. All Prop V votes to date in the county have passed.

Low Turnout, High Taxes

By my count, there are 13 tax proposals on county ballots this year, not counting Prop V. In 2015 there were 15 tax props, 12 of which were successful. In 2016 four of six were successful. Republicans have taken over most county elected offices, but in the nonpartisan local districts, tax hikes are still being requested quite frequently.

Turnout for the last two April elections was about 15%. In addition to these tax measures, city council, school board, and fire/ambulance board seats get filled in April. The candidates that get elected are the ones that put these taxes on the ballot. With the low turnout, it is city employees, teachers, firemen, and paramedics who make the difference in these races with their endorsements and their votes. Then you end up in a situation where the pocketbooks of residents are a secondary priority. With all these tax votes, as well as school board elections in two districts (Fox and Grandview) where employees have been investigated by the FBI for wrongdoing, it behooves JeffCo residents to go vote on April 4.

Rock Fire Tax and Arnold Giveaways

13 Mar

The Rock Community Fire Protection District is proposing a property tax hike of 50 cents per $100 in valuation, a big increase over its current 77.6 cent rate (on top of sales and personal property taxes). I plan to get into the larger issue in another post, but at this time I want to talk about one cited reason this tax is being proposed.

Here is a letter that Rock Fire sent out to residents of the district. I didn’t think government entities could campaign for their own tax hike, but here it is, paid for by the district.

Paragraph four talks about a rollback of their property tax over time, then says “this, combined with the redirection of public tax dollars to various TIF projects, has forced us to take serious measures in order to meet budgetary shortfalls.”

What do they refer to? Well, for one, in October 2015, Arnold made a deal with Anheuser-Busch for the expansion of the can production plant in Arnold. As part of the one-sided deal, Arnold agreed to a 100% tax abatement for 20 years, meaning that the can plant won’t have to pay any property or personal property taxes on the new buildings and equipment that come with the project.

Now, this doesn’t really affect Arnold, since the city makes most of its money through sales taxes. But this really puts the screws to other government entities that are also affected by this project and do rely on property taxes, like Rock Fire, which stands to lose over $2 million over the life of the abatement, while incurring additional responsibilities to provide fire coverage for the can plant. The deal also includes no payments in lieu of taxes (pilot), something that Rock Fire attorney Frank Vatterott called “highly unusual.” The city has the power to make these deals without consulting any of the other affected districts, and in this case, without informing them until a month before the deal was ratified.

Fox school district CFO John Brazeal had some harsh words for the city of Arnold (note that, when Fox asks for a tax hike in a couple of years – they are laying the groundwork now – they will undoubtedly cite this same project as justification):

“It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.” (Thomas Sowell)

Compare the Arnold, MO deal to the Jacksonville, FL deal, both projects currently in progress.

Arnold: $150M project ($20M building + $130M equipment) with a 100% tax abatement of $19.96M over a 20-year term, including $12.72M of school taxes. This on the heels of Arnold’s 2012 project of $88M having a 100% tax abatement of $14.53M over a 20-year term, including $9.59M of school taxes.

Jacksonville: $170M project ($40M building + $130M equipment) with a 75% tax abatement of city taxes totalling $12.0M over a 12-year term. All other property taxes, including 100% of school taxes) to be paid by Metal Container.

Team Jacksonville = smart. Team Arnold = @#$%!

Incredibly, Team Arnold’s starting offer was 100% abatement. This deal was announced in December 2014 following a council approval that took place somewhere other than an open meeting.

It takes no special skill and no special strategy to end up empty handed. Nothing for the emergency services. Nothing for the school students. Not even cheaper beer prices.

It is true that Florida law contains some restrictions on the ability to give away the farm like Arnold did, but still.

On top of the current deal is the 2012 can plant deal that Brazeal mentions above. I’m not sure what that deal cost Rock Fire, but estimating from the amount it costs Fox, it is probably about $1.5 million.

Mayor’s race note: Arnold councilman and candidate for mayor Phil Amato was the only councilman to vote against the can plant deal.

Kroenke TIF Also Hurts Fire District

Another corporate giveaway that is draining Rock Fire’s coffers is the tax increment financing (TIF) that was passed for Arnold Commons in 2005. The project was undertaken by a company called THF Realty, which is run by none other than this guy:

e_stanely_kroenke

Stan Kroenke

The project also included eminent domain land seizures.

Rock Fire paid over $600,000 of its tax receipts towards the TIF debt from 2008-2012, according to a 2014 Leader article, but then stopped because Rock Ambulance was not paying in. They say they don’t have to since they did not sign off on the agreement. Rock Fire thought this was not fair, and stopped paying until the city filed suit against Rock Ambulance. This lawsuit, filed in 2014, is still being adjudicated. When the suit was filed, Rock Fire paid another $400,000 towards the TIF debt, and continues to keep paying. Under the TIF terms, Rock Fire and Rock Ambulance are supposed to pay half of the sales tax money they get from the development back to the TIF.

So here we see another of the negative side effects that these poorly-negotiated, poorly thought out corporate giveaways have on us.

Heroin and Foster Care in Jefferson County

4 Mar

A number of recent news articles have appeared recently on the area’s heroin/opioid epidemic and specifically how it impacts the foster care system. Jefferson County in particular is affected by the combination of heroin use and a lack of foster homes. According to a KSDK report, there are 350 children in foster care in the county that can’t be placed with family members, but only 60 foster homes.

A recent Post-Dispatch article, accompanied by a stark front-page photo of two addicts shooting up in their kitchen, provided this chart of local heroin death rates:

heroin-rates

While STL City has far and away the worst problem, Jefferson and Franklin have the next highest rates among area counties.

Another P-D article highlighted the effects of heroin on the foster system in the region:

“We are in desperate need of more foster parents for the first time in a decade and a half,” said Melanie Scheetz, executive director of the Foster and Adoptive Care Coalition of St. Louis. “We need them for both newborns and older children.”

This article states that the number of JeffCo kids in foster care has increased by 20 percent in the past five years, while STL City and County have gone up by about 30 percent.

This graphic, also from the P-D, shows birth rates by county of children with opioid withdrawal symptoms:heroin-births

JeffCo is not in the top ten in the state in this statistic, and our 8.68 per 1,000 rate is lower than what is seen in Franklin, Washington, and St. Francois Counties, but higher than Ste. Genevieve and St. Louis Counties.

Local Response

Judge Darrell Missey, who sees foster care trends firsthand in his courtroom, helped start a group called Fostering Hope, and he is highlighted in this KSDK news report (definitely watch the video). This group helps spread the word about the need for more foster parents and lets churches and other groups know what they can do to help.

missey

Jefferson County Judge Darrell Missey

First Baptist Church in Arnold has started a One Less Orphan ministry. The goals of this program are to recruit, train, and support foster and adoptive parents.

The Jefferson County Foster Children’s Fund helps support foster children and parents by providing events and donations.

Kasten Port Snort Continues; Wieland Weighs In

26 Feb

As I wrote about recently, county councilman/school board member/city administrator Jim Kasten was denied reappointment to the county Port Authority board in December over concerns that serving multiple entities as he does constitutes a conflict of interest. The idea is that situations may arise where the interests of one body are not aligned with those of another. This issue came up again at the January 23 county council meeting, but more on that later.

State senator Paul Wieland introduced a bill on February 21 that directly addresses this issue – SB449. Here is the summary of the bill:

This act specifies that no member of a board of port authority commissioners shall be an employee or independent contractor of a city or county.

Kasten is the city administrator for Herculaneum, and as such this bill would prevent him from being appointed to the JeffCo Port board. Here’s what Wieland said in his weekly newsletter:

“Growing and expanding Missouri Ports are one of my highest priorities. Having had the opportunities to visit ports across our state and nation, I am convinced that limiting the conflict of interest of policies [sic] insiders and bureaucrats will allow Port Authority Boards to make decisions and react to market conditions quicker. The fastest growing and most efficient ports are ones without these conflicts,” said Senator Wieland. “I was impressed by the acumen of our county council that they too recently voted down a nomination to our Jefferson county port authority because they recognized the conflict by having a city administrator reappointed to the board.”

If SB 449 were to become law, it would remove the temptation for future county executives to attempt to appoint any career bureaucrats.

I don’t suspect this bill will go anywhere this session, but it sends a message. Not only one in support of the county council, but in rebuke of county executive Ken Waller, who nominated Kasten for reappointment and continues to support him.

Port Vote Discussed

Several individuals, including some family members, spoke in favor of Kasten being reappointed at the January 23 meeting. A few regular critics of Pevely government showed up to support the council’s decision to not reappoint, as did lawyer Stan Schnaare, who has been involved in several politically-connected legal actions in the county and ran for judge as a Republican in 2012.

Kasten himself also spoke. According to the meeting minutes, “he explained his anger at the December 27th meeting stemmed from sadness and fear, that his feelings were hurt that not one Councilmember called to confer about the appointment and he is now fearful there is no relationship with the people he serves with on the Council.” He stated his desire to stay on the port authority. However, it sounds like this question will not be reopened for consideration.

Waller also mentioned his disapproval for how the vote was handled, and presumably he means how Kasten was not informed beforehand. The council has done this type of thing a few times in the past, and while I agree with them on the principle of this issue, I also agree that council members probably shouldn’t blindside nominees when they are voting against their appointment or reappointment to a board position.

Roorda Embattled as Cop Union Manager

19 Feb

Having been knocked out of the political game due to Jefferson County’s rapid shift from a blue to a red county, Jeff Roorda is now facing heavy criticism in his role as business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers Association (SLPOA), where he is the de facto spokesman for metro area police and the go-to guy for cable news shows looking for a controversial commentator. Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger puts it starkly in this latest column: The Fire Roorda bandwagon grows — St. Louis cops deserve a better voice.

The latest round of criticism of Roorda includes the mayoral candidate that was endorsed by SLPOA, Lyda Krewson, calling on the union to fire him. Criticism of Roorda has been heavy since the Michael Brown incident in Ferguson, an event which Roorda parlayed into two books and countless cable news appearances, during which he aims not for common ground but for provocation (this is probably why he keeps getting invited back). This role, which I imagine many in Jefferson County support, did not help him overcome the local GOP wave, as he lost a state Senate race in 2014 and a Jefferson County council race in 2016.

Krewson’s call and Messenger’s column were prompted by this Facebook post by Roorda about St. Louis mayor candidate Tishaura Jones (who is currently second to Krewson in the polls):

roorda-post-tishaura

Krewson, the only white candidate in the race with a shot to win, is late to the game among those running for mayor in denouncing Roorda. He was a major topic at a late January mayoral debate, where Krewson was booed after she denounced Roorda’s various comments but would not call for his firing (which she now has).

The primary election is on March 7, and the Democrat nominee will be rubber-stamped to victory on April 4. Will Roorda last that long in his current job?

roorda-cooper

I love this photo.

Shoving Suit

Roorda has a problem on another front as well. He is being sued over a 2015 incident at a packed, heated St. Louis board of aldermen committee hearing when he allegedly shoved a female as he made his way to the front of the room (see video, which is open to interpretation, at the above link). The plaintiff is asking for $500,000.

Arnold Considering Lower Land Requirement for Chickens

18 Feb

Thanks in part to local residents who organized via Facebook, the city of Arnold is considering relaxing its current rules on lot size needed for keeping chickens in the city limits, but at the same time tightening other rules. Currently, an Arnoldian must have one acre of land to have chickens, and the city will come do an inspection, but there are no coop regulations.

animal-1842264_1280

via Pixabay.com

 

The city staff presented a “rough preliminary draft” of a new chicken ordinance at the February 8 work session (video here, chicken discussion starts at the 37 minute mark). Community development director Mary Holden basically said she was throwing this proposal out there to start the discussion and get input from the council, so I won’t blame her too much for the egregious parts of it, although it should be noted that most of the proposals are on the restrictive side compared to other cities in the area.

I don’t have a copy of the full proposal, but the highlights include:

  • minimum of 1/2 acre required
  • 4 bird limit
  • written permission from neighbors required
  • setbacks – 15′ from the property line, 50′ from buildings
  • coop rules – at the meeting they said the rules were similar to what Ellisville and Brentwood have – this would be at least 3-4 square feet per bird in the coop and at least 10 square feet per bird in the outdoor enclosure

The requirement to get permission from the neighbors is clearly an overreach, and one councilman (it is hard to tell who is speaking in the videos) made this point. What other activities on one’s own property require permission from the neighbors? Ellisville has a notification requirement, Glendale requires permission, and Webster Groves lets neighbors comment on the application, but most do not require this. (List of local chicken ordinances here).

Land requirements vary in the area, from 7,500 square feet up to 3-5 acres. I think there’s no reason someone with a regular single-family residential lot should not be able to keep chickens. Some places, like the City of St. Louis have that rule, and for others, 7,500 square feet approximates to the low end of the range of normal-sized lots.

The number of birds that local cities allow ranges from about 4-8, so again the Arnold proposal is on the restrictive side. It is hardly worth it to keep chickens if you only have 4, considering you get 5-6 eggs per week per hen. That’s hardly enough for breakfast for two people. Arnold should allow at least 6 birds, I’d say.

For setbacks, 10 feet from the property line seems to be the most common requirement locally, so Arnold’s proposal is again on the restrictive side.

Arnold council members are going to give their input to city staff, who will come up with another draft proposal. If you live in Arnold and are interested in this issue, now is the time to call your councilman.

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