Robertson Fire District Changes Move Forward
A judge has thrown out a lawsuit that sought to block a recall vote for Robertson Fire District in northwest St. Louis County. So the recall vote of the full board will move forward, although the politics of that recall are not what this post is about. As I have written about before, this dispute is a complicated but ultimately vital issue that perfectly encapsulates what is wrong with so many of our very small tax entities in Missouri that get little attention from the public or media.
To summarize, about 20 years ago Hazelwood annexed a part of unincorporated St. Louis County that had been served by Robertson Fire District. Because of an obscure and misguided law (RSMO 72.418), Hazelwood was not allowed to use its own fire department provide fire protection services to the newly annexed area. Instead, Hazelwood was required to keep paying Robertson Fire District the amount it was due from property taxes within the part of its district now within Hazelwood. (It’s more complicated than that, but those are the basics of the arrangement.)
That part is troubling enough, but what happened over the ensuing years is that the fire district was able to convince voters in that area to increase their property taxes dramatically, because the residents did not owe the increased taxes like they normally would. In this case, the entire city of Hazelwood had to pay the higher taxes that benefitted (perhaps) a small number of residents. These elections were likely held on little-attended election dates where small groups of residents were able to wield outsized influence. The fire department union probably comes into play here, as a very politically active union can more easily dominate a fire district than a city fire department, although it can certainly do so with the latter, too.
Over the years, it has gotten to the point where Hazelwood is considering bankruptcy to pay the insane taxes it owes a fire district for services Hazelwood could and should be providing itself to these residents. This situation reflects everything that can go wrong with local government in Missouri—high taxes, inefficient government, and the imposition of taxes on taxpayers who have no say in the matter to benefit special interests. I wrote about this issue in my paper on Special Laws in Missouri. RSMO 72.418 needs to be changed so that cities that annex or incorporate have the option of providing fire services to the new parts of a city if that is what the new residents want. It is reasonable to require some type of payment to the fire district in these instances, but the current law allows the rampant abuse we are seeing in St. Louis County by the Robertson Fire District and needs to be substantially changed.