Where Is Robertson Fire District, and Why Do They Take So Much of Hazelwood’s Tax Money?
Over the past two decades, a smoldering fire has been slowly burning in North St. Louis County. No, I’m not talking about the Bridgeton landfill fire; I’m talking about the Robertson Fire District (Robertson).
A few decades back, the City of Hazelwood annexed some adjoining land into the city. That land was previously unincorporated and had been served by the Robertson Fire Department. Because of an arcane and misguided law applicable in St. Louis County (RSMO §72.418), Hazelwood was required to pay Robertson the property tax revenue in the annexed area for Robertson to continue providing service there, even though Hazelwood was entirely willing and able to provide fire services in that area via its own municipal fire department at lower cost. As part of the agreement reached after the annexation, the residents of the area pay a portion of the property tax (as is normal), but the city itself pays anything above the initial tax level. Since that agreement was reached a long time ago, voters in Robertson have approved extremely high property tax rates, which is easy to do because the city—not the property owners—is responsible for the increased property taxes for the portion of the fire district that lies in Hazelwood. Confusing? Yes, it is, and that’s the point. Fragmented government, low-turnout elections, obscure special taxing districts, politically active public-employee unions: taken together, they create the perfect environment for government mismanagement and abuse.
The situation has gotten so bad that Hazelwood is saying it may have to declare bankruptcy. Some residents of Hazelwood have put together a citizen’s group to demand change, and they have successfully placed a recall election for the Robertson board on the November ballot. Average citizens are now engaged in this issue, and that is what the Robertson board should fear the most.
What is the solution here? Well, there are several options. There is the political solution, which will be addressed in the upcoming recall vote. Then there is the direct policy solution, which is to repeal RSMO §72.418 and allow municipal fire departments to serve annexed areas. But there is a bigger issue here, and that is the political influence of the firefighters union and its ability to dominate independent fire districts (and some municipal fire departments, too, no doubt). From this Post-Dispatch story:
Also opposed is Local 2665 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. Only a handful of districts in St. Louis, St. Charles and Jefferson County—including the Northeast district—have fire boards controlled by directors whose campaigns weren’t backed by the union.
The Robertson issue is just one local example of this larger debate. I saw what happened when local politicians in University City tried to oppose the fire union, and it wasn’t pretty. I commend the Hazelwood elected officials for their stance here, but to stop the abuses of firefighters unions in our area many more voters and local officials will need to get involved.