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Better Together JeffCo Proposal

17 Mar

The STL region is all atwitter about the Better Together proposal, which suggests a merger of the city of St. Louis and unincorporated St. Louis County, as well as consolidating some of the functions of the municipalities of the county. The plan is to vote on this statewide in 2020 in order to make changes to the state constitution to enable the new governing structure. Overall, I am in favor of this proposal because there is indeed too much duplication of functions in the area, along with uneven quality of service, and significant savings could be found by streamlining – if they actually go through with getting rid of unnecessary employees and offices. This would also reduce the instances of cities competing with each other with tax breaks to get Walmarts and other businesses to come to their specific areas.

The duplication is most visible is the existence of so many small, corrupt and/or incompetent municipal police departments within STL County. In addition, the city of St. Louis is a basket case and governance there can only be improved through this proposal.

How About Here?

Along the same lines, I would like to lay out a proposal for Better Together JeffCo. I believe there are a number of functions in this county that could be merged to save money and stem the constant tax increases that we have been seeing. A lot of people crow about “local control,” but in small jurisdictions that too often leads to a lack of candidates for election to boards, which leads to uncontested elections, which leads to unaccountable politicians, which often leads to abuses, bad decisions, unethical actions, and even criminal wrongdoing.

The wave of revelations of incompetence and wrongdoing in local police departments in DeSoto, Hillsboro, Byrnes Mill, and Pevely provide further evidence that my proposal is needed. Despite all of the shocking deficiencies that have been uncovered, each city has refused to shut down its police department. This doesn’t just affect finances, it affects the administration of justice, as innocent people get assaulted by unqualified police officers, incompetent chiefs chase away good cops, and guilty people go free due to shoddy evidence storage. As you can imagine, police issues are a big part of my proposal, which is as follows:

Elements of the Plan

-Merge all 911 dispatch into one entity. The majority of the county is on the same system, but Crystal City, Pevely, Festus, and DeSoto do their own police dispatching and Festus does its own fire dispatch. According to the state tax table, CC and DeSoto pay the 1/2-cent 911 sales tax, even though they have their own dispatchers. Festus and Pevely residents would start paying the tax, but the cities would save money by cutting their own dispatch services.

-Merge Pevely and Herculaneum. While Pevely is a constant source of drama and dischord, Herculaneum is a relative bastion of calm. I hardly ever write about events there, because there is not much to report. At the same time, Herculaneum looked into turning its policing over to the county sheriff last year due to its desperate financial situation (but foolishly declined). Herky is using Pevely’s jail and was using Pevely for dispatch before switching to the county 911 system. It is hard to see how Herky, with the loss of Doe Run, can afford to sustain its police. By merging the cities, they can pool resources, and the additional population will dilute the Pevely craziness, so you may end up with one functional, solvent city with reduced drama. These two cities already share a school district.

-Merge Festus and Crystal City. Come on now, we know that this split is ridiculous. I mean, the Walmart is shared by the two cities, and half the time you don’t know which of the two cities you are in. This would prevent things like Crystal City having its own separate water system instead of joining in with Festus and Herculaneum. In 2013 there was a discussion of merging the two cities fire departments into a fire district, but it went nowhere. This proposal could also include merging the school districts.

-Merge fire and ambulance districts. There are currently 7 ambulance and 18 fire districts (including municipal ones) in the county.

Maps from Jefferson County Data Book

Most of the time, from what I have seen, when there is an ambulance somewhere, you will also see a fire truck. Or you will see trucks from multiple districts at the same incident. In addition, there are places like Highway M where you have a Rock ambulance district building within a mile of one Antonia firehouse and within two miles of another one. If these entities would share facilities, we would not need to build so many of them. This would also allow for fewer administrators and officers. We are seeing requests for fire and ambulance tax increases nearly every election. Mergers would save money and reduce the need for tax hikes. The boundaries don’t line up perfectly, but I think you could have each ambulance district absorb the fire districts within it.

-Get rid of municipal police departments except for Arnold, Festus/CC, and Pevely/Herky (assuming the latter two pairs are merged as per above). The other cities would turn their policing over to the county sheriff. The small departments in the county have shown us that they don’t have the ethics, standards, training, or finances to survive on their own. Turning their duties over to the county will bring about economies of scale, eliminating unnecessary chiefs, streamlining training, fleet management, equipment, and distribution of officers around the county. The other cities would pay the sheriff’s office for service, but would likely pay less than what it would take to get their departments up to snuff.

Here is a paragraph on policing from the Better Together executive summary (page 7) that provides an idea of the costs of duplicative services:

POLICING – Today, there are 55 separate police departments covering St. Louis City and County. $468 million was spent on policing the area in 2015, or $355.20 per capita. Costs in cities such as Indianapolis, IN ($242.02 per capita) and Louisville, KY ($257.06 per capita) depict substantial savings in areas with one unified police department. Beyond the cost is the inconsistent quality of service. 75% of the departments in our region lack accreditation.

-Dissolve Byrnes Mill. This idea needs to happen on its own merits, since the city is a mess with a long line of problems with its police department. It is also questionable whether the city has sufficient revenue to stay solvent now that its ability to fund itself with traffic tickets has been curbed.

-Merge the libraries. In addition to the JeffCo library with its three branches (Arnold, Windsor, Northwest), there are libraries in Festus, DeSoto, Herculaneum, and Crystal City. The Herky library is open for very limited hours. The Festus and CC libraries are only two miles apart. DeSoto is looking to almost double the property tax for its library at the April 2 election. Hillsboro has been

Let’s bring all of these libraries under the county library system. That way they could share books, materials, and resources. We could close the Crystal City or Festus location and make the other ones branch libraries, all open to anyone in the county. Residents of Hillsboro have been trying on-and-off for almost 20 years to get their own branch. With this proposal, they would at least have access to libraries in nearby cities. This proposal would require getting rid of the library taxes in the cities that have them, but then extending the county library property tax to the entire county. A branch would probably be needed somewhere between Hillsboro and Cedar Hill to make it fair to residents in that part of the county.

Let me know what you think of this proposal, or if there are other functions that should be included in the merger.

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Antonia Fire Wants Big Tax Hike but Fails on Transparency

31 Mar

The Antonia Fire District asked for a 50-cent per $100 assessed valuation tax increase in November, which was rejected by a 56-44% vote. Now they are back, asking for a lesser, 35-cent increase on the April 3 ballot. However, while the district is eager to ask for more of your money, its leadership is not eager to share what it does with it.

Here is the page on the Antonia Fire website devoted to board meeting agendas:

antonia web agenda page

Yup, empty. Here is the board meeting minutes page:

antonia web minutes page

Just one entry, from two-and-a-half years ago, presumably chosen to make them look good.

Furthermore, there is no budget page on the site. I know from a Leader article on the tax hike that the district’s current budget is $2.65 million, but that’s all the information I have. I did find that if you use a little Google-fu you can find some old meeting minutes from 2013-14:

antonia google

So these minutes are still uploaded to the site, but no longer featured on the minutes page. Why take them off, and why stop uploading new ones?

Rock Ambulance has some of this information on its site, for comparison.

No Sunshine on the Budget

The district does no better in responding to Sunshine Act requests for copies of the budget. If you request a few years’ worth of budgets, you won’t get them unless you pay money (about $25). That’s not a huge amount, but this information should be on the website, free for all to see. Furthermore, the district might slow-roll your request until after the election. It should literally take the district 20 seconds to attach some files from a folder onto an email and hit send to fulfill such a request.

I feel that, if this district wants more money, its leaders should be transparent about what they are doing and how they are spending. If they aren’t, we should vote no.

As an aside, I would also compare this 35-cent tax request to the Sheriff’s Department 35-cent tax request that will also be on the ballot. Which is needed more?

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