Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

County Auditor Says New Law May Be in Jeopardy

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

County Auditor Says New Law May Be in Jeopardy

Article excerpt

Gov. Mel Carnahan signed a bill on Tuesday that is intended to settle a long-standing dispute about the agency that dispatches emergency vehicles in St. Charles County.

But county Auditor James W. Hodges says the new law may violate the state constitution. He cites the Missouri Supreme Court's recent decision that could jeopardize the new measure.

Barring a challenge in court, the new law will set up a Central Fire and Emergency Services Board in the county to replace the 11-member board of directors of the Dispatch and Alarm Agency.

In next April's election, one member of the new board will be elected from each of the County Council's seven districts. This election is in response to critics who contend that the current board is not accountable to the taxpayers because not all of its members are elected.

Most members of the agency's current board were elected either by voters in fire protection districts or in the county ambulance district.

The new board would be responsible for the day-to-day operation of the dispatch center. Also, the board would be in charge of all expenses for dispatching and would set the annual tax rate needed to finance the operation.

In 1989, voters in the county approved a dispatch tax of up to 5 cents for each $100 of assessed value. Since then, the annual tax rate has varied from zero to the maximum of 5 cents, depending on the dispatch fund's balance.

The current agency ran into trouble several years ago when Hodges, the county auditor, challenged expenses approved by its board. Hodges contended that the expenses violated state laws.

Litigation followed. Then the dispatch agency came under fire from the County Council.

Council Chairman Carl Bearden, R-7th District, led the move earlier this year to cancel the county's contract with the dispatching agency. He argued that its board was not elective and, therefore, could not assure accountability to taxpayers.

Bearden proposed that a county department take over dispatching duties and that its employees be under the county merit system or that dispatching be handled by a private operation under the council's control.

The agency rejected the proposal. …

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