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Wegge Walks Away

18 May

Not surprisingly, Jefferson County Prosecutor Forrest Wegge, a Democrat, has decided not to run for re-election in 2018, according to the Leader. He says the usual stuff about how it’s time to try something new and he’s been thinking about stepping down for a long time. But really, we know what this is about. With the GOP wave sweeping the county, he had little chance of winning again. Add to that his total bungling of the Dianne Critchlow case, which he first punted to the feds after a six-week review, but then only upon getting the case handed back to him did he decide that he should recuse himself due to his friendship with Critchlow. Why on God’s green Earth didn’t he recuse himself the first time around?

Of course, the Leader appeared to accept his explanation for not running again, and did not press him on either of these issues. The Leader has a history of not asking obvious questions about the Critchlow debacle to relevant figures.

Hats in the Ring

Two people have already announced plans to run for the job, both as Republicans.

The first one is Trisha Stefanski, who ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination to a county judge position last year. Interestingly, after the primary, she signed on to a newspaper ad (along with Bob Sweeney) which endorsed all of the Democratic candidates for judgeships. She responded to me about this issue here. Stefanski currently works in Wegge’s office. After the Critchlow debacle, though, we may need new blood at the top.

The second announced candidate is Mark Bishop, who ran against Wegge in 2006…as a Democrat. But you see, he’s not switching parties for political expediency, nope, he says the GOP “more closely aligns with my beliefs” now. Bishop is a partner and owner at Wegmann, a well-connected Hillsboro law firm. He formerly worked under St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCullough.

Parents React to DeSoto Principal Resignation

3 May

Adam Grindstaff, principal of Vineland Elementary in the DeSoto school district, was forced to resign last week over “the use of district monies.” According to district parents, the issue was the unapproved purchase of a vacuum cleaner for the school; the district will not provide specifics. The district notes that Grindstaff declined his right to a public hearing before resigning.

A swell of outrage resulted from this event, leading to a petition calling for the reinstatement of Grindstaff that garnered over 1,400 signatures and a Facebook group with over 1,100 members. A school board meeting on Monday was moved to a larger location (the junior high cafeteria) to accommodate residents, who were only given a total of 30 minutes to speak to the board. Grindstaff’s attorney was not allowed to speak publicly during this meeting, on advice of the district’s attorney. It is noteworthy that DeSoto employs the same law firm, Mickes O’Toole, that the Fox district used during the reign of Dianne Critchlow. It was this firm that sent out letters threatening lawsuits against vocal critics of the district for daring to speak out while also thwarting parents who attempted to get services for their children with special needs. The law firm also helped Critchlow resist transparency as she withheld credit card statements and other requested records until her kingdom crumbled.

What Now?

At this point, Vineland parents are wondering what steps to take next. I would like to offer some thoughts:

Meeting result: The district has stated that the board voted to accept the resignation, and word is that it was unanimous. Under the Missouri Sunshine Law, the results of any votes taken in closed sessions of board meetings must be revealed within 72 hours. So by Friday DeSoto will have to reveal what votes were taken Monday night (residents may have to request this information) and the results of the roll call (how each board member voted).

School Board Elections: The next board election is April 3, 2018. Two board members, Beverly Wilson and Terry Noble, will be up for re-election (if they choose to run again). The registration period for candidates will run from mid-December to mid-January. The best scenario would be that all opposition gets together around two challengers in order to not split the vote.

Missouri law does not allow for the recall of school board members. After the Fox fiasco, Rep. Rob Vescovo from Arnold introduced a bill to create such a process specifically for that district, but it did not pass the House. Other similar bills have been introduced in the past 15 years but have also failed. Currently, recalls can only take place of elected city officials in third-class cities in Missouri (like Arnold or DeSoto).

Superintendent: DeSoto’s superintendent is Josh Isaacson, a former assistant superintendent in the district who took the top job in July of 2016. He can be removed by the school board. However, he has a contract that is probably for two or three years. If he were to be let go during the contract, he would be due for a big payout from the district unless they could show cause. It was only five years ago that DeSoto paid $208,000 to get rid of a superintendent, Critchlow crony Andy Arbeitman.

State Audit: Residents could petition the state auditor to audit the school district. This would lead to a deep-dive into the district’s finances and operations. While it would not directly impact the Grindstaff issue, every school district could use a good state audit. The recent audit of Fox documented many problems. The school district would have to pay for a petition audit, which could cost $40,000 or so. After submitting a request form to the auditor, residents would have to gather a number of signatures based on the number of votes cast in the district in the last election for governor. By my calculations, there were 12,223 such votes cast, and so 1,222 signatures (10%) would need to be gathered within one year. If everyone who signed the online petition mentioned above actually lives in the school district, there are enough signers right there.

Lawsuit: Grindstaff could pursue a lawsuit against the district. He has legal counsel. I’m not sure if the fact that he resigned instead of making them fire him makes a difference in his chances of winning or getting a settlement.

Call Representatives: Residents could contact their legislators to discuss this. However, Rep. Elaine (Freeman) Gannon is said to be related to DeSoto assistant superintendent Clint Freeman, so there would be a conflict there. Rep. Ben Harris covers part of the DeSoto area, and the state senator for DeSoto is Gary Romine.

Wastes of Time

The following moves, however, will not accomplish anything.

  • Trying to get the board to remove the superintendent. The board hired him a year ago, and they voted to support the Grindstaff resignation. Why would they remove the superintendent over this? Plus, they don’t want to have to pay a big settlement.
  • Trying to remove board members prior to the election. There’s no way to do it, as I stated above. And the vote to accept the resignation was a judgment call on their part, not a sign of misconduct. But it is one that can be punished at the ballot box.

I salute the parents of Vineland for becoming politically active in response to this decision that they strongly disagree with. Unfortunately, the next election is 11 months away. But keep communicating, get organized, learn the relevant state laws, attend board meetings, and vote, and you can make a difference. As we have seen in the Fox district, it’s not easy to win elections and affect significant change. But it is worth trying.

County Exec Waller Wants Greener Pastures

17 Apr

According to the Leader, “The Festus City Council voted 5-3 at Wednesday’s (April 12) meeting to hire Gregory Camp, currently city administrator of Desloge, as the new Festus city administrator.”

According to individuals with knowledge of the hiring process, current Jefferson County Executive Ken Waller (Republican) applied for this position, and was one of the six candidates who received an interview. But he did not prevail in the end. It should be noted that the Festus city admin job will pay Camp $90,000 per year, whereas Waller currently makes about $81,000. We know that Waller wants more money from taxpayers, as evidenced by his participation in a multi-politician lawsuit against the county asking for more pay.

Waller’s second term as executive ends in 2018, but he was apparently looking for an early exit. His time as exec has been marked by conflict with the Republican-led county council, where he has adopted a more moderate, status quo approach to governing. He is currently trying to hector (his preferred leadership approach) the council into joining a prescription drug monitoring program.

Latest Lawsuit

This conflict is made evident by Waller’s recent decision to file another lawsuit, this one against the council over an ordinance it passed over his veto. The ordinance contains a rule that allows the council to replace members of some county boards that miss three meetings in a year. The original version of the bill gave the executive that power. It is the executive that appoints members to these boards while the council votes to confirm his appointments.

I’m not sure that this issue is even ripe for a lawsuit, since we aren’t in a situation where a board member has actually been removed. But it will require both sides of the lawsuit to shell out county money for outside legal representation, since the county’s full-time lawyers can’t participate in an intra-governmental court battle.

Next County Executive

It seems unlikely that Waller will run for another term as executive, though he still has a campaign committee set up for that purpose that has brought in $88,000 in the current election cycle and has $63,000 on hand.

One other Republican has taken a step to run for the seat. 97th district House Representative John McCaherty, Republican from High Ridge, who held the seat for seven years, has changed his campaign committee’s office of intent to county executive, per campaign finance records at the Missouri Ethics Commission:

mccaherty-exec

McCaherty will be subject to term limits next year, and thus unable to run again for the House. Incumbent Republican Paul Wieland will presumably run for reelection to the state Senate seat for northern JeffCo in 2018, so that option is out (though it is rumored that Waller was looking to make a play for it). McCaherty has raised $171,000, but only has $55,000 on hand.

Waller lives in Herculaneum, in House district 114, which is represented by Republican Becky Ruth. She is in her second term, and so could occupy that seat until 2022 if all goes well for her, so that option doesn’t seem open to Waller.

I guess he could always run for secretary of state.

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.

Sweeney Screws Up Again

27 Mar

Oh man, the laughs were loud and side-splitting in my household when I belatedly saw this little tidbit. It turns out that the Saline Valley Fire Protection District, which got a tax hike passed in August of 2016, has to go before the voters again for a redo. Why?

Because their attorney, Bob Sweeney, f’ed up the ballot language!!!

According to the Leader, who limited this story to its West Side edition in February, the State Auditor’s office ruled that the tax initiative from 2016 only applied to that year. Here is the 2016 language:

Shall the board of directors of the Saline Valley Fire Protection District of Jefferson County, Missouri be authorized to levy an additional operating tax of not more than twenty-five cents ($0.25) on the one hundred dollars ($100.00) assessed valuation to provide funds for the support of the District, with the levy increase to be effective for taxes imposed in 2016?

That last sentence does seem a bit awkward. We see tax increases on the ballot left and right in these parts, especially on the upcoming April 4 ballot, and the other entities don’t have this problem. Couldn’t Sweeney just have copy and pasted some language? Why did he put the year in there like that?

Here’s a delicious excerpt from the Leader article:

saline sweeney

Rebuke! So now Saline has to spend $5,474 to hold another election. That money should come out of the district’s payments to Sweeney, but the board probably won’t make such a common sense move. That amount is surprisingly low to me, considering that Sweeney’s decision to illegally kick a candidate off the ballot in the North Jefferson Ambulance District cost that entity $20,000 in extra election costs.

This is more evidence of my repeated assertion that Sweeney, who serves as attorney for a multitude of local entities, including the cities of Arnold and Byrnes Mill, is, in addition to being ethically bankrupt, just not a very good lawyer. Since municipal law is almost all he does, you would think he could handle something simple like this. Now if only these entities would realize he’s a bad lawyer and get rid of him…

More Arnold Mayor Drama

One person who seems to have belatedly realized that Sweeney is no good is Arnold city councilman and mayoral candidate Phil Amato, who correctly stated in January that Sweeney and police chief Robert Shockey are the ones running the city. Amato is the latest in a line of Arnold council members, including Ken Moss, Cricky Lang, and Sandra Kownacki, to apparently come around to the realization that things are rotten in Arnold. I suspect, though, that part of Amato’s epiphany is politically motivated.

Now, the Leader reports that Amato has filed a complaint against Sweeney with the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel (OCDC) of the state Supreme Court (I understand this is not the first complaint against Sweeney filed there). Amato says Sweeney violated attorney-client privilege as it relates to the election deal that Amato offered Counts. I don’t know if this particular complaint is legitimate, but if you have to get Al Capone for tax evasion, or get OJ for robbery, that’s good enough for me.

The Leader also reports that the bogus Missouri Election Commission (MEC) claim Counts filed against Amato for the election deal offer was dismissed by MEC for being out of its jurisdiction. Sadly, there is only one week left in this contentious Arnold mayor election campaign. With events like this, I wish it would drag on for months.

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.

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