by Mary Wilson, firstname.lastname@example.org
Divided public opinion on the prospect of a public safety tax vote and its ultimate usage brought Bill Galvin and Mayor Leonard Jones face to face during last week’s Grandview Board of Aldermen work session.
“I think you know why I’m here,” said Galvin, president of Local 42, Grandview’s sole bargaining union for firefighters and EMTs. “You’ve heard what (the public safety sales tax) can do. We’d like to know what the issue is with not putting it on the ballot.”
Mayor Leonard Jones asked Galvin to explain why the public safety sales tax issue has become a priority for Local 42 to push in front of Grandview’s voting population. Galvin and his organization have been leading the charge to persuade city elected officials to put the tax on a future ballot. Discussion during public comments during previous meetings, social media posts and paid advertisements expressing Local 42’s dissatisfaction with the Board of Aldermen and Grandview’s Mayor prompted last week’s meeting.
“Why didn’t this come up last year, the year before, or the year before that?” asked Jones. “What has changed?”
Galvin credited the urgency to legislation passed recently, while Jones and City Administrator Cory Smith said that the legislation Galvin referred to has been established for quite some time. As far as Galvin knows, there has not been an issue in other municipalities with getting a public safety sales tax on the ballot.
“I think it’s time to put it on there,” said Galvin. “You keep losing firefighters and getting new ones, I don’t know, every three months. I think you’ve lost 12 in the last nine months. I’d like to work as a partnership instead of going against each other, but I don’t know what the deal is why you wouldn’t want it on there.”
Ward III Alderman Jim Crain said that, despite Local 42 claiming through advertisements and social media the Aldermen are anti-public safety, he was instrumental in equipping police vehicles with mobile data units, bringing thermal imaging cameras to the department, and demanding that all three ambulances be outfitted with electronic-powered cots to prevent injuries.
“If you had done your homework, you would know that over the years that I’ve been sitting here I’ve been a very, very strong supporter of public safety,” said Crain. “I’m surprised you would even question my support of public safety. I support the public safety sales tax. My guess is that between three and six months we’ll have it on the ballot.”
While Crain said that several discussions have taken place regarding putting the public safety sales tax on the ballot, the Aldermen are still trying to figure out how such a tax would be implemented if it were to pass.
“I doubt very seriously that the way a lot of it will be used is going to be up for negotiation,” said Crain. “The Chief will have recommendations, but this Board is going to figure out how it will be spent. I strongly disagree with the tactics of the union, and I’ve heard a lot of negative comments. It’s been disheartening and disappointing.”
Ward II Alderman Brian Hochstein brought up the fact that the City of Grandview has negotiators who help determine contracts for public safety employees.
“The public safety tax is a separate issue, but you’ve drug it into this,” said Hochstein. “You’re going to say things like we’ve failed and we don’t care about firefighters’ lives or our citizens’ lives? That’s really disappointing. If people showed up at this meeting at other times, they’d know that we’ve talked about the public safety sales tax.”
Hochstein added that he has personally brought up a potential tax numerous times. In 2014, the City of Columbia voted down a similar tax, so Hochstein said the tax has been around since before then. When it comes to a specific public safety tax, he said he is in full support of putting one on the ballot for the voters in Grandview to decide.
“However, we had already lined up other taxes for our citizens to vote on,” said Hochstein. “We’ve had two major problems in the last few years when it comes to sales taxes that feed the general fund which allows us to provide services. My concern has always been, first and foremost, making sure that my constituents were getting services from all departments and that those were funded.”
“What is more important though, their safety or other services?” asked Galvin.
“Their safety is factored into that,” said Hochstein. “I’m not saying that we can’t do better.”
Hochstein added that with Grandview voters recently passing the Capital Improvement Sales Tax this month, the Aldermen are looking toward passing the Local Use Tax. With online sales, the City of Grandview has seen significant reduction in sales tax revenues.
“We finally have the ability to recoup some of that, and that’s been our plan,” said Hochstein. “Our sales tax has been getting killed, absolutely murdered, by online sales.”
Hochstein also said that he has been a part of frank discussions with the Board regarding timing of putting the issue on a ballot. He would like to see it go to a public vote in six months, though he understands that while Local 42 is in negotiations with the City of Grandview, the timing is not convenient for the union.
“You said a keyword there, you said killed,” said Galvin. “Is that what it’s going to have to take to happen, one of these officers or one of these firefighters to get killed?”
“We can’t look at everything in one little bucket, Mr. Galvin,” said Hochstein. “I don’t look at it that way. I agree that there are things that can be improved, and I think there is a way to get there. But, the negotiating parts of public safety taxes are separate things. We have other concerns, and frankly, Local 42 attacking us (with billboards and on social media) is not productive and is not helping things.”
Ward I Alderman Damon Randolph asked what the staffing standards are for fire departments. According to Galvin, the standard number of firefighters to fight a residential fire is 15 and goes up from there with larger fires. Randolph also asked why strategic partnerships with other surrounding departments are considered to be a bad thing in regards to Local 42’s efforts to educate Grandview’s citizens on the need for additional fire employees.
“We don’t think it’s a bad thing, but the staffing would be nice if it was here,” said Galvin. “A lot of municipalities around here have a four-man staff on every rig while you just have three.”
Randolph said he has heard Local 42 say the opposite, that a strategic partnership is not a good thing.
“If you had proper staffing, you wouldn’t need as much help, which also hurts other cities too,” said Galvin. “You’re then taking resources from other cities. Now they have to find somebody to fill them spots.”
If voters in Grandview were to pass a public safety sales tax, Ward I Alderman Sandy Kessinger asked what the proposed use of the additional tax revenue would be. Galvin said that Grandview’s Fire Chief would have the ultimate say, but that Local 42 would be involved in negotiations to determine the use. He added that he would like to see the tax used for salaries and the hiring of additional firefighters.
“Grandview is not the first jurisdiction to push back or have concerns about a vague plan from the firefighters’ union,” said Kessinger.
Ward II Alderman Annette Turnbaugh added that she is also in support of a public safety sales tax ballot issue, but she feels that the personal bashing Local 42 has used to force the issue has caused a loss of confidence in the community.
“They feel that we don’t care,” said Turnbaugh. “That could not be further from the truth.” Though he was absent from the meeting, Ward II Aldermen John Maloney said he has always been supportive of having the public safety sales tax on the ballot, and if not in November, he’d like to see it be voted on in April.
Mayor Jones said that the City of Grandview has been doing the same thing it has been doing for several years and nothing in regards to public safety has changed.
“You now have the opportunity for change with the public safety sales tax,” said Galvin. “If it’s been there for a long time, how come you didn’t implement this a long time ago? The opportunity was there to have those tax dollars for public safety and it was never acted on.”
Jones said that the Board of Aldermen has approved a sequence of ballot issues to benefit the entire city, and the public safety sales tax has already been queued to move into the ballot cycle.