Saturday, July 08, 2006

CASE IN POINT - Joe Koester, Councilman Ward 9

Baseball is green and safe. It has neither the street intimidation of basketball nor the controlled Armageddon of football.... Baseball is a green dream that happens on summer nights in safe places in unsafe cities.
-Luke Salisbury

The past couple of weeks have been pretty quiet at city hall. This made me think that maybe all legislation on all levels needs to be conducted in the summer. You can imagine how quickly lawmakers would finish up business and work together if it meant spending the long, warm days of summer in a room
with florescent lighting and bad coffee.

Regardless, the city council can be happy about one issue where we have taken the lead on a local level while up in Jefferson City they have dropped the ball – tax relief for seniors. Those in our community who have fixed income have watched their real income shrink from rising fuel costs, rising health care costs, and fast-rising home assessments that make the tax bill harder and harder to swallow. Certainly, tax relief could be more substantial on a federal or state level; however, we have taken steps to help out here locally.

For debate, I have asked that the bill be discussed at work session in order to include assistance for others in our community. My thoughts include: raising the income level to adjust for inflation where citizens can ask for the same tax break regardless their age, and offering the same tax break to those in our community with three or more school-aged children. Regardless whether or not this additional section becomes reality, the legislation was a good step in reducing taxes on local retirees.

A serious issue that we have to face head on in St. Charles is the state of our public schools. While we are in the middle of shuttering schools, Fort Zumwalt and Orchard Farm are or will be constructing new schools just to the west and north of us, respectively. In the case of Zumwalt, the new Zumwalt East High School will be right on the border of the St. Charles City School District. The St. Charles School District, while faced with a student bodythat isn’t growing, has already lived those big growth days of the 70s -
building, splitting the school day into two shifts, and using trailers for classroom space. When Francis Howell was in the thick of their financial troubles, St. Charles schools seemed to be financially sound. In fact, the public passed a bond issue for millions of dollars to repair and modernize our schools. I think the fact that this bond issue was passed just a few years ago added to the public’s surprise at the announcement that schools would be closed unless a new tax was levied in April. The general thought was that we should have made the latter decision first and then we would have had more bond money to invest into the schools that would be remaining open. For many, this was the thing that stuck in their craw the most about closing schools. Our property values and quality of life are directly bound to how well our schools are doing, how far the neighborhood school is from home (especially elementary schools/middle schools), what are the classes and programs -offered and what is the average class size.

Development and redevelopment within the school district should help our schools for the next several years. The Noah’s Ark site is under contract for development, the Montgomery Building is under construction on South Main Street, the casino is constructing a large hotel on its property, and the old SSM property on West Clay is currently under construction to name a few.

One deleterious influence on the funding for our local schools is Lindenwood University. Each house bought for student housing removes the property taxes off the books. From that tax, a large portion did go to our city schools. The university has acquired a couple hundred properties – including some commercial space that would have put in an even greater amount. This situation needs to be changed but it will take legislation on a state level in order to do that.

Next, while gasoline prices are the most glaring example of inflation, other basic products have been skyrocketing too - today, a 1⁄2 inch, 10’ section of copper pipe at the hardware store runs about $17.00. The past six years have been good to the oil industry and other multi-national corporations. It’s only the working stiffs who have lost ground lately. It’s time to change government from D.C. to Jefferson City!
Finally, the question whether we should have a full-time or part-time mayor should be going back before the voters now that the matter has been explored and citizens have been given a chance to examine just what is meant by this definition. If you simply ask someone, “Should the mayor be full or part time?” Most would say that a full time mayor would be good. The question that needs to be asked is, “Should we have strong-mayor form of government that allows the mayor to hire and fire department heads at will. Or, do you prefer to keep a city government with a professional city administrator who hires and fires by procedure and who promotes based upon performance? Should the council have input in the hiring process? Full-time and Part-time does not well describe the changes that are involved with the vote of the people. We have to make certain that we make this clear so people can make an informed decision.