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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.

Wagner Resigns as County Clerk; Who to Replace Him?

30 Jan

Wes Wagner has turned in his resignation as Jefferson County Clerk, where his main duties are running elections, issuing licenses, and serving as recording secretary for the County Council. He will leave his post on the last day of February, presumably to spend more time with his family and whatnot. It had not been anticipated that he was going to run for re-election in 2018.

Who will county executive Ken Waller choose to replace Wagner? Thanks to a quirk in the county charter, Waller has to choose another Democrat to fill the spot. I presume that Waller, a Republican, will not want to choose a young, up-and-coming Democrat who has a good chance to win election to the seat in his/her own right. Instead, Waller may look to a seasoned Democrat who was recently turned out of county office in the county GOP wave of the past 7 years. Or he could tap someone who currently works in the clerk’s office. Given the state of local politics, the appointee is sure to be an underdog in 2018 as a Democrat, so maybe Waller will find a 2-year placeholder that won’t want to run again. Or the person could switch parties and run as a Republican. Here are some possibilities (I have no inside info on these names):

Dorothy Stafford – She served as county auditor for 20 years before being defeated in 2014. She tried to get back in the game in 2016 by running for county treasurer, but was unsuccessful. She doesn’t seem to be ready to retire.

Bruce King – County public administrator for 14 years before being knocked off in 2012. He is currently suing the county, claiming based on language in the charter that he should have been paid more money his last two years of service. I think he is carrying water for other current and former elected officials who don’t want to put their name on a lawsuit demanding more money from taxpayers.

Jeannie Goff – She is currently Wagner’s chief of staff in the clerk’s office. Perhaps the odds-on favorite, since she knows the job, and Wagner might put in a good word for her with Waller, who may listen.

Tim Meadows – Former state representative, ran unsuccessfully for county council in 2012. Currently serves on the county Port Authority board.

Ben Harris – Current state representative for the 118th district in the south part of the county. He has a lonely existence as the only rural Democrat in the state House of Representatives. He will be term-limited out of the House in 2018, so he might be up for switching from a part-time to a full-time political job for the next two years. He’s only 40, though, perhaps too young for the criteria I outlined above.

Any other possibilities?

Doors Thrown Open on Arnold Backroom Deals in Campaign Spat

25 Jan

If corruption in Arnold becomes so bad that the Leader is forced to write about it, you know it’s serious stuff.

Years of good old boy, backscratching, crony politics broke wide open today as the wary detente of Mayor Ron Counts and Councilman Phil Amato exploded publicly. As the filing deadline for April’s mayoral election approached, Counts filed complaints with the state Attorney General and the Missouri Ethics Commission over a deal that Amato supposedly offered him, which would have kept Amato out of the mayor’s race. This is what Amato wanted, according to Counts and as reported in the Leader:

  • Choose a certain person as the next Public Works director, thus eschewing an open, fair, hiring process oriented towards picking the best candidate and instead elevating a probable Amato crony.
  • Choose a certain person as the next Parks and Rec director, thus eschewing an open, fair, hiring process oriented towards picking the best candidate and instead elevating a probable Amato crony.
  • Force Bob Shockey out as police chief.
  • Give Amato an “unspecified benefit.”

Amato does not deny the first two, says that he merely wants to know when Shockey will finally leave, and claims that the benefit is “maybe a dinner.” I fully endorse the third item, and I suspect the fourth is a special deal for a Amato developer pal or something a bit more substantial than a meal at Applebee’s.

I fully suspect that, had Amato and Counts been able to come to an agreement (perhaps by dropping item 3), this deal would have been signed, sealed, and delivered, and Amato would have happily gone back to the council. Instead, here we are.

Smoking Gun Not a Secret

Amato also released what he claimed was a “smoking gun” that would have stayed secret had Counts accepted the deal. Amato said it was the city that ordered Ameren to shut off the electricity to flood-threatened areas of Arnold last December during the historic Meramec River flooding. This decision led to many flooded basements, as homeowners could no longer operate their sump pumps.

Counts denies this, and states that it was a consensus decision. I wrote about this back in February. Here is the statement I got from Ameren on this issue:

ameren-flood-response-feb-16

I think in the end, it had to be the city that made the order, while Ameren was free to advise. The real question, as I wrote in the article linked above, was which homes to shut off. It was clear that Arnold selected way too many homes to cut power to, 530 of them, when in the end only about 150 homes saw major damage. From statements, it appears that Arnold was working off of flood estimates that were two feet too high and not in line with what anybody was actually forecasting in the days before the flood. This would explain why the number of homes which had power shut off was so excessive. It was Counts and Shockey that were spouting the incorrect flood forecasts.

On an interesting flood note, residents complained that their manholes were not pumped out, and this contributed to the backups. The city said, hey, it’s not our sewer system, we sold it to Missouri American Water. The city heavily campaigned for this sale (while Amato voted against it as a city councilman) and tacked on an illegal tax. The city government got a bunch of money, and the residents got sewage-filled basements.

Shockey and Sweeney

Where there is corruption in Arnold, Shockey and city attorney Bob Sweeney cannot be far behind. It was Shockey who arranged to pay his son-in-law to attend police academy, steered city purchases to his personal businesses, interfered in the 2013 mayoral election on behalf of Counts with a frivolous, baseless discrimination lawsuit, and extracted a $70,000 payout from the city via that lawsuit. And here we are again with Shockey weighing in on the mayoral election on behalf of Counts.

Sweeney has interfered in Arnold elections by selectively booting candidates from the ballot based on their ideology, been grossly overpaid for years by running up billable hours, shilled for red light camera company American Traffic Solutions, and given bad legal advice.

Amato states that Counts doesn’t really do much, and that Shockey and Sweeney run the city. It has been true over the years that certain city officials won’t do much without consulting Sweeney, and that Shockey is pulling a lot of strings to advance his own interests. Here are their responses to Amato in the Leader:

sweeney shockey amato.png

Sad to hear that Shockey won’t retire, but if you face no accountability, why not hang around and suck up a paycheck? And I suspect Amato’s “vendetta” is just that he finally got sick of Shockey’s mooching off of the city.

It is clear that Sweeney and Shockey like the status quo in Arnold, and will be fighting to maintain it in this campaign. It will be interesting to monitor the campaign contributions that the two candidates receive.

Who to Back?

On one hand, I think good people in Arnold should back the third candidate for mayor, William Denman, who I know nothing about, only to get rid of Counts and Amato, who is running for mayor instead of for re-election to the council. But, given that Amato seems ready to get rid of Shockey and Sweeney, perhaps we should support him. Achieving those two goals alone would be enough to Make Arnold Great Again.

More importantly, given the sheer number of figurative bodies that are buried in Arnold City Hall, here’s hoping that the campaign stays nasty, and that Amato and Counts reveal some more secrets about Arnold city operations between now and April 4.

Who Will Replace Boyer on the County Council?

13 Jan

Jefferson County Councilman Bob Boyer, a Republican from the Arnold-area district 3, was elected in November to be the next county assessor. While other officials elected in November are taking office now, Boyer will not do so until September 1, so that the current assessor can complete the biennial reassessment cycle that is currently underway.

According to the county charter, section 12.3.4, it is up to the council to fill a vacancy on the council. One would think that the county executive would make the appointment in such a situation, but that is not the case. He would do so if a county office, like treasurer, became vacant, but not for a council vacancy. Boyer’s term expires after the November 2018 election, so the person the council chooses to replace him would serve for about a year before having to decide whether to run for re-election (assuming this appointment will take place in late summer/early fall).

Since the council, minus Boyer, consists of 4 Republicans and 2 Democrats, we can assume that a Republican will be appointed to the seat (sorry, Phil Amato). But who might that person be? Let’s engage in some wild speculation by looking at Republicans who have recently run for Arnold-area elected office:

EJ Fleischmann – Current Ward 1 city councilman in Arnold, elected in April 2016. He is active in local GOP politics and has ties to state Representative Dan Shaul and state Senator Paul Wieland. These ties make him a serious competitor for this seat. He is young, at only 24 years of age. Odds of being appointed: 3/2

Jason Fulbright – The other Arnold Ward 1 city councilman in Arnold. He was first elected in April 2013 (unopposed). He ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination for state representative against Shaul in 2014, but won the Arnold township GOP committeeman position. Last year he was elected to the water board for the Arnold area (after that board painted the water tower blue). His party connections are growing, but I don’t think he lines up as well as Fleischmann ideologically with those who will make the appointment. He is currently signed up to run for re-election to the Arnold council in April. Odds: 4/1 He has ruled out being appointed to this seat

Dan Smith – He lost to Democrat Jeff Roorda in the 2012 race for state representative in District 113. He currently serves on the county Planning and Zoning Commission. But most importantly, he served on the Fox School Board from 2008-2014, while disgraced former Fox superintendent Dianne Critchlow was stealing from the district. Here’s what I wrote when he was appointed to P&Z:

Anybody who has served on the Fox school board over the past six years is, in my mind, automatically disqualified for any elected or appointed office, because it was the board that allowed all of this to happen, through a combination of neglect, naivete, or coziness with Critchlow.

I cannot fathom that the Jefferson County Council would actually appoint this guy to join them. Given that Critchlow has yet to experience any repercussions for her actions, I think the uproar among county residents would be quite significant if Smith was entrusted with another public office. But he still has friends in GOP circles, as indicated by his appointment to P&Z. Odds: 12/1

Phil Hendrickson – He challenged Boyer in the 2014 GOP primary for county council, losing 58-42%. He serves on the Jefferson County Code Commission. Odds: 20/1

Anybody else?

JeffCo Judge Arrested for DWI and Assault – Wegge to Not Recuse?

30 Nov

Last night, November 29, Nathan Stewart, the Jefferson County circuit judge for division 3, was involved in a one-car accident along Route BB south of Cedar Rock Road, according to the Highway Patrol. He went off the road and hit a power pole.

stewart-accident

Missouri Highway Patrol report on Stewart accident

These MO HP images are hard to see, best to click on the links in my text to view them on the HP website.

Stewart, who was defeated earlier this month in his bid for re-election as the Democratic candidate against a GOP wave, and thus only has about a month left in his term, was arrested on the scene for misdemeanor driving while intoxicated and felony 2nd degree assault, and taken to the Jefferson County Jail before being quickly released.

stewart-arrest

Missouri Highway Patrol arrest report on Stewart

Under state law, one of the definitions of 2nd degree assault is:

While in an intoxicated condition or under the influence of controlled substances or drugs, operates a motor vehicle in this state and, when so operating, acts with criminal negligence to cause physical injury to any other person than himself;

This applies in this case because Stewart had a passenger who received moderate injuries and was taken to the hospital. Interestingly, starting January 1st, the legal definition of 2nd degree assault no longer includes the above language. I’m not sure where this offense will fit at that time, but this case falls under the law as it stands now.

I am told by the Highway Patrol that the reports about this incident won’t be available for 10 business days. I will follow up once I acquire them.

Recusal

Of course, this case will not be able to be handled in Jefferson County, you would think. The prosecutor’s office and every judge would have to recuse themselves. I mean, JeffCo Prosecutor Forrest Wegge has to, right, even though he failed to recuse himself the first time around in the Dianne Critchlow case? But no, here’s what Wegge’s office told Fox 2:

We also asked whether or not a special prosecutor would be appointed to review last night’s accident, but we are told the final decision on possible charges will be made by the Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. The decision could takes weeks, or months.

REALLY?!? Wegge’s going to take this case, even though his office has tried many cases in front of Stewart, and they are both members of the JeffCo Democratic party? Maybe he should glance at the ethics manual. Even if he does decide to prosecute (unlikely – he probably wants to just wait until we all forget about it, then drop the case), what judge will hear it? It will have to go to another county.

In the meantime, will Stewart try to serve out his term, or just step aside? The Fox 2 article goes into this a bit. It says Stewart has several DWI cases on his docket next week. One lawyer assumes the cases will be continued (delayed).

I am interested to see which lawyer defends Stewart if this goes to trial. He had a lot of the Hillsboro legal establishment backing him during the campaign – who will he turn to in his hour of need?

stewart-mug

Nathan Stewart booking photo, from the Mobile Patrol app

DWI Issues and JeffCo Laywers

There have been a few alcohol incidents involving members of the local criminal justice system in recent history. Here are examples:

  • Assistant county prosecutor Catherine Crowley was out of a job a day after seeming to be drunk in court (in Stewart’s courtroom, no less) in May 2015.
  • Prominent Festus lawyer, and former county prosecutor and municipal judge, Michael Lowry was involved in an apparent drunk driving accident in 2004, but was allowed to go home, and no charges were filed.
  • JeffCo prosecutor Forrest Wegge was arrested for drunk driving in 2003 (before he became prosecutor).

Am I missing anyone?

Big Labor Power Waning in JeffCo

16 Nov

According to liberal Post-Dispatch columnist (is there any other kind)?) Tony Messenger, unsuccessful Missouri Democratic candidate for governor Chris Koster began his election day in Arnold, speaking to union grocery workers.

This is not too surprising, as JeffCo has long been seen as a union stronghold. But the results of Tuesday’s election suggest that those days are in the past.

One of the major issues of the gubernatorial campaign was right to work. GOP candidate Eric Greitens was all for it, while Koster was strongly against it. One would think that this would have made a big difference in our county. But Greitens carried Jefferson County by a 53.6 percent to 42.7 percent margin, even bigger than his statewide 51.3 – 45.4 win.

In local legislative races, two incumbent representatives who have cast votes in favor of right to work were on the ballot. Rob Vescovo, Republican in the 112th district, won a rematch with Robert Butler by a 59.6 percent t0 40.3 percent margin. Two years ago, Vescovo won with 60.0 percent of the vote, so his right to work support had virtually no effect on his margin of victory.

Likewise, Dan Shaul, Republican in the 113th district, won re-election by a 57.8 to 42.1 margin. Two years ago, he received 56.9 percent of the vote against an arguably weaker opponent. His foe this year, Karen Settlemoir-Berg, actually works for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.

While most Republican legislators from JeffCo still oppose right to work (RTW), it is clear now that supporting it is not a career-killer for local politicians like it has been perceived to be in the past. But now that Missouri has a Republican governor, only a bare majority in the Legislature, instead of a veto-proof one, will be needed to pass a RTW law. It is likely that, in a few short months, RTW will be passed and signed and will be taken off the table as a political issue.

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