HAZELWOOD, MO – The Hazelwood City Council announced Wednesday it will submit a proposal to the Robertson Fire Protection District (RFPD) for the City of Hazelwood to take over fire services for an annexed portion of the city. This proposal is in response to a lawsuit filed by the RFPD against the city and a proposal to de-annex from Hazelwood.
In the 1990s, the City of Hazelwood annexed a portion of the RFPD's service area known as the Northwest Territory. The two parties reached an agreement at the time for Robertson to continue providing fire services for that portion of the city and Hazelwood would pay the taxes. The agreement was finalized into Missouri law chapter 72.418 (https://rfpd.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Petition-pdf-version-11-Final-tax-abatement.pdf).
The RFPD services about 40 percent of Hazelwood, according to Hazelwood City Manager Matt Zimmerman. Ten to 15 percent is covered by the Florissant Valley Fire Protection District. The remaining area is covered by the city's fire department.
Over the years, the tax rate for Robertson increased about ten percent every ten years and is currently more than double what the Hazelwood Fire Department receives, Zimmerman said.
"Our issue is, as they've increased their rates from 91 cents to $2.54, which is one of the highest rates in St. Louis County, it's the city that's footing the bill, not the direct property owners so our payments have gone from $1.1 million to $3.6 million in 20 years," said Zimmerman. "We've gone into deficit spending the last two years because of the increase payments to Robertson."
Zimmerman said not only have the rates increased, but the salaries for RFPD firefighters have increased as well. The city conducted a pay study and discovered the pay for RFPD firefighters in 2015 was about 35 percent higher than for Hazelwood firefighters.
At that spending rate, Zimmerman said in one year the city will be below its minimum reserves and will be forced to start cutting services and employees.
Officials from both parties said over the past three years the two parties were meeting weekly and working towards reaching a solution that would save both groups money. Charles Billings, General Counsel for the RFPD, said Hazelwood suddenly ceased discussions.
In December 2017, the City of Hazelwood sent a letter to the RFPD terminating their agreement. As part of the termination notice, Zimmerman said the city offered to buy the RFPD's fire station and fire equipment for the remaining debt.
Billings said the RFPD filed three lawsuits against the city in response to the termination notice: to review funding made in the past, a lawsuit to enforce the previous judgment, and a third lawsuit stating Hazelwood is in contempt for not following the previous judgment.
Billings said the money the RFPD receives from the city accounts for half of the district's budget. He said the city owes the district about $3.5 million.
"We are still at full staff, we still are running calls every day," said Billings. "We are operating on some reserves... but the reserves are dwindling fast."
When asked about the $3.5 million balance due to the RFPD, Zimmerman said the city has not paid the district because they discovered the district was "keeping $4 million in reserves off the books."
"We felt like if we're paying 54 percent of the revenues to support their operations, then that $4 million off-budget, some of that ought to come back to the tax payers of the city of Hazelwood," said Zimmerman. "So we paid them less, from our perspective the standard of 25 percent reserve, they had 125 percent reserve if you count this off-budget $4 million. We felt like, to bring them down to a 25 percent reserve was more than appropriate for the tax payers of Hazelwood, so we paid less than half of that excess reserve to them. We believe that that's perfectly legal."
Neither the fire department nor the fire protection district is currently equipped to service the entire city of Hazelwood, but both said they could be ready if and when the time comes. Zimmerman said the city has money in the budget to build a new station house, hire 18 firefighters, and buy a new fire truck and a new ambulance. They are prepared for the transition to occur on January 1, 2019.
The City of Hazelwood said it will begin preparing a proposal and hopes to have it complete within the week. The two parties will meet in St. Louis County court on July 27 on the contempt lawsuit.