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Ethics Questions Again for Local Attorney

15 Jun

A JeffCo lawyer who serves as judge for the once-predatory Byrnes Mill court, Colby Smith-Hynes, is accused of unethical conduct in a family law case where he was representing his wife (and employee of his law firm) April regarding her kids from a previous marriage. This conduct allegedly includes his firm forging a signature and fraudulently notarizing it, which allowed Smith-Hynes to represent his wife’s ex-husband (Sean) for a several-month period without his knowledge, even though the ex-husband is actually siding against April and with the long-deceived biological father in this case (Steve) in a drawn-out paternity/custody case.

The notary for the Smith-Hynes Law Firm has received a cautionary letter from the Missouri Secretary of State over this incident, and the state Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel is investigating. While Colby was ordered to withdraw from this case, since he might be a witness, the only other lawyer at his law firm, Matt Stone, has taken over these duties. Stone has moved to quash a request that the original signed, notarized document be produced in court.

After the ex-husband found out about the unwanted representation, he put an end to it. After that, with his position damaged, Smith-Hynes lashed out in lawyerly fashion with unwarranted filings, including an order of protection against Steve, depriving him of contact with his own son, and a motion for contempt claiming Sean is behind on child support payments. These filings are intended to delay the proceedings, increase legal costs, and inflict stress. Meanwhile, April continues to receive child support payments, and a teenage boy continues to live in limbo.

These parties are simultaneously battling in small claims court. Sean’s wife, Shannyn, was forced to pay taxes on the loan forgiveness of a vehicle that April took ownership of when divorcing Sean but then lost to default and repossession. The IRS does not recognize divorce settlements, so Sean (and therefore Shannyn) were stuck with the $1,400 debt when April did not pay. Now she has to sue April to get it back. Colby is representing her on this case. A search of Casenet and PACER (the federal courts database) reveals that the Smith-Hynes’ have run into a lot of trouble with paying their debts over the years.

Past Issues

Smith-Hynes serves as municipal judge for the two formerly most confiscatory cities in the county when it comes to charging high fees for traffic tickets, Byrnes Mill and Hillsboro. The legislature passed SB5 in 2015, and this law has since forced ticket reforms and fee reduction. In his judicial capacity, Smith-Hynes was found to have double billed the two cities in 2012-2014 for some travel expenses for the annual municipal judge party/conference at Lake of the Ozarks. After my investigation, he reimbursed Byrnes Mill almost $400, calling it an “oversight.”

April 2017 Election Results

4 Apr

Headlines (results here):

  • Ron Counts re-elected as Arnold mayor by 177 votes over Phil Amato. Candidate William Denman, probably a stalking horse, gets 276 votes. Fulbright, Owens, Hood, and Cooley win council seats (all but Hood are incumbents). With these results, and with Amato off the council, the Counts-Shockey-Sweeney cabal is only strengthened.
  • All three Byrnes Mill tax hikes fail (one ended in a tie, which means it failed by one vote).
  • Pevely alderman candidate Linda Hahn wins Ward 2 by one vote; Steph Haas re-elected as mayor.
  • Rock Fire’s large tax increase wins with 52% of the vote.
  • Fox school board incumbent Dawn Mullins wins while Vern Sullivan loses. Steve Holloway returns to the council after a one-year absence, while Scott Stewart also won a seat. Stewart joins Carole Yount and Sherry Poppen as part of the Jim Chellew clique on the board. Chellew was once Fox superintendent and was a mentor to a young Dianne Salsman Brown Critchlow (who indicated her support for Stewart on Facebook).
  • Jefferson County Library tax hike wins.
  • In the “every vote matters” category, along with Hahn and the BM tax, there was a tie for the second director seat at Valle Ambulance District between Steven Bergner and Nathan Myers.

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.

Sweeney Post Office Box and Local Elections

19 Aug

I wrote here about how an employee of Arnold and Byrnes Mill city attorney Robert Sweeney named Lisa French was, strangely, the deputy treasurer for the failed Prop C effort to pass a half-cent sales tax in Arnold to fund stormwater and infrastructure improvements in 2015.

French, from Hillsboro, is also the deputy treasurer for a new political action committee (PAC) called The JeffCo Dems. While French listed what I assume is her home address in the paperwork for Building a Better Arnold, she lists PO Box 20 in Hillsboro as her address in the paperwork for The JeffCo Dems. That same address is also listed as the address for the PAC itself. Allison Sweeney, daughter and law partner of Bob Sweeney, who also serves as Byrnes Mill prosecutor, is the treasurer of The JeffCo Dems and also for Democrat county council candidate for district 2 Roger Hendrix (she also wrote a letter to the Leader supporting Democrat Nathan Stewart for re-election as judge). Box 20 is listed as the address for Hendrix’s campaign committee and as the address for both Sweeney and his deputy treasurer, French.

PO Box 20 is also the address for – guess who – the Sweeney Law Firm. Generally, Bob Sweeney has preferred to do his political meddling behind the scenes, but I guess now his organization is going overt in its support for Democrats.

I asked this question in regards to Arnold Prop C, but it comes up again: if Bob Sweeney’s employees are listing the firm’s address as their address on these forms, are they doing political work as part of their job duties? Is Sweeney thus giving unreported in-kind donations to these PACs and Hendrix?

Old PAC Same as the New PAC

Now, I say that The JeffCo Dems is a new PAC, but in fact it is a reformed version of a PAC formed in March 2015 called….JeffCo Dems. This is according to paperwork filed at the Missouri Ethics Commission (MEC) website. JeffCo Dems was terminated on 5/25/16, the same day that The JeffCo Dems was formed. The old group transferred all of its money on hand, $3141.63, to the new group. Both groups have the same treasurers, Sweeney and French. Why end one group and start a new one just to add “the” to the PAC name?

Somehow, the old PAC does not have any finance reports on the MEC website other than its termination report. So we don’t know where it got $4,660 of the $4,920 it brought in, or how it spent $814 of that money (the rest that was not transferred to the new group went mostly to Hillsboro homecoming supplies). The new group has received about $2,300 from traditional Democrat sources: Democrat candidates, a labor group, and lawyers.

Given the Sweeney history of shadiness, I think these committees are worth keeping an eye on.

Byrnes Mill Court Revenue 2014-2015

27 Jan

Byrnes Mill has submitted its financial report for the 2014-2015 fiscal year to the state auditor, as required by law. The city’s fiscal year ended on June 30, 2015, which was two months before Senate Bill 5 took effect. This law caps revenue a city can earn from minor traffic violations to 20% of total revenue (12.5% in St. Louis County).

For some reason, Byrnes Mill reported its total court fine revenue, not just its revenue from minor traffic tickets (see page 30 of the report linked above). One assumes, though, that minor traffic tickets make up a substantial portion of the total amount, which was just over $292,000, amounting to 24% of total city revenue. If Byrnes Mill wants to comply with SB 5, it will need to reduce this number in the current fiscal year, which is now about half over. Alternatively, it can separate out revenue from minor traffic tickets and state that amount, and we can see if it exceeds the 20% cap. But using these numbers, Byrnes Mill would be more than $50,000 over the new cap. If this is the case a year from now, the city would have to send that money to local schools.

Furthermore, cities are required to submit certification of compliance with several municipal court procedures. Byrnes Mill has yet to file this certification (it was due by 12-31-15). Byrnes Mill was one of 115 cities that did not file this certification.

Byrnes Mill Settles Smith Suit

16 Dec

Back in July 2014, fired Byrnes Mill police chief Michael Smith filed a lawsuit against the city. He alleged that he was fired because he refused to engage in various corrupt and unlawful activities that city officials, primarily city administrator Larry Perney, ordered him to carry out.

This lawsuit was settled earlier this month, according to pacer.gov and information obtained from Byrnes Mill. The amount of the settlement was $35,000, which seems like a rather small settlement. The city also changed Smith’s firing to a voluntary resignation.

Byrnes Mill Again Looking to Annex

10 Dec

Byrnes Mill, aka JeffCo’s Ferguson, has long lusted after the businesses that lie just north of it in unincorporated High Ridge. They want to annex these businesses for their tax revenue, the same reason the city wants to write so many traffic tickets. Byrnes Mill is the only JeffCo city that will be affected by the passage of the SB5 state law last year, which limits the amount of traffic ticket revenue the city can bring in to 20% of its total revenue. All other JeffCo cities have been safely below this cap.

Here are articles going back to 1999 that exhibit Byrnes Mill’s greedy eye:

In 2010, the freakin’ state legislature passed a law specifically to thwart Byrnes Mill’s attempts to annex land that contains no registered voters:

Annexation of territory prohibited, when (City of Byrnes Mill).

79.025. No city of the fourth classification with more than two thousand three hundred but fewer than two thousand four hundred inhabitants and located in any county with a charter form of government and with more than one hundred ninety-eight thousand but fewer than one hundred ninety-nine thousand two hundred inhabitants shall annex any territory adjacent to the city if such adjacent territory proposed for annexation does not contain any registered voters unless the city has obtained the written consent of all the owners of real property within such adjacent territory.

Here’s some discussion of that. See all the gymnastics they have to do to single out a city? The population numbers and the charter government provisions make this a bill that applies to one city.

Word is that Byrnes Mill is back on the annexation warpath. Reports are they want to annex all the way up Highway 30 to Quik Trip. The big prize would be WalMart. Here is a map:

byrnes_annex

I’m told that Byrnes Mill’s planning consultant, Streiler Planning, is currently working on a comprehensive plan for the city and is investigating annexation possibilities.

Impact

Byrnes Mill’s main claim is apparently that it can provide police services with a faster response time than the county sheriff (though the sheriff has a zone office in High Ridge). Walmart reportedly is interested in annexation for this reason.

Annexation would mean a higher sales tax for customers of the included businesses. Byrnes Mill’s sales tax rate for 2016 is 8.35%, while High Ridge is at 7.35%.

It would also mean worse governance. Byrnes Mill has had plenty of problems, particularly with its police department. Go here to read my old posts on the subject. This city has not earned the right to expand. Hopefully the county government and the affected businesses will stand up and stop this latest land grab.

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