HAZELWOOD – There will be no fireworks this July 4 in the town of Hazelwood.
The collection of autumn leaves is over for the moment. Just like picking up tree branches in the spring. And it looks like a city community and a fitness center will remain closed.
Hazelwood is considering the possibility of bankruptcy, Mayor Matthew Robinson said in a letter to residents.
This city of 25,000, the seventh largest in St. Louis County, has been fighting an area fire district for years over a contract the mayor and other city officials have called a scam. The stimulus dollars temporarily saved the city, officials said. But he needs a break from Robertson’s fire protection district bills, Robinson said.
“In the event of bankruptcy,” Robinson wrote in the June 22 letter, “central city services such as police, fire, street maintenance and snow removal will continue, but in greatly reduced capacity.”
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The two sides have been battling in court for years. At the center of the dispute is the contract Hazelwood entered into with the fire district after the city annexed an area already covered by the district in 1995.
The result: Part of Hazelwood is serviced by the city fire department, while other adjoining areas are covered by the Robertson Fire Protection District and the Florissant Valley Fire Protection District.
The Robertson contract requires the city to pay any fire district tax exceeding 99 cents for every $100 of assessed value. That cost has skyrocketed over the years, Hazelwood Town Manager Matt Zimmerman told The Post-Dispatch in April.
In 2021, Hazelwood paid the fire district about $4.5 million of its $30 million annual budget, according to Robinson’s letter and city financial documents.
Robinson could not be reached for comment on Monday. Robertson Fire District attorney Chuck Billings provided a statement on behalf of the district.
The statement notes that Hazelwood agreed to pay the district the appropriate tax rate, but then refused to honor the agreement. Both sides have spent millions on lawyers in the legal battle since then, he says.
“Hazelwood has continually indicated that they are in financial difficulty,” the statement read. “Robertson offered to merge with the Hazelwood Fire Department to save the town money, but this was rejected by Hazelwood. The Florissant Valley Fire Protection District offered to take over the service from Hazelwood fire, but it was rejected by Hazelwood.”
The statement argues that while Hazelwood may be in financial difficulty, “threats such as those found in the mayor’s recent letter are not the answer.”
“Robertson is ready, willing and able to work with Hazelwood to put in place long-term solutions,” the statement said. “Hazelwood has been threatening bankruptcy for years as a strategic bargaining point in this litigation. Positioning continues.”
The ongoing legal fight has prompted a group of residents by the name of Citizens to Save Hazelwood & Fire Services to speak out against Robertson’s expenses. The group leads an effort to recall the three members of the district’s board of directors.
Robertson averaged about 2,542 calls for service per year from 2019 to 2021, according to breakdown statistics. Its last public audit of 2020 shows the district had $9.1 million in expenses, about 73% of which went to salaries and benefits.
The median employee salary in the district was $116,066 in 2021, according to district payroll records.
Robertson’s former fire chief, Maynard Howell, said in the April interview that firefighters were paid well because he wanted to attract them to the district. He wants them to stay long enough to get to know the residents and perhaps spend their careers here, he said.
Howell recently retired and was replaced by Chief Todd Phillips.
The Fire District announced a plan in April to cut residential tax rates by nearly 60%. The residential tax rate would drop from $2.41 to 99 cents.
Robertson officials said the move, which would take effect next year, would save the town of Hazelwood about $638,000 in taxes.
Robinson said in his letter to residents that he would keep them informed.
“I appreciate your patience and understanding,” Robinson wrote, “while these issues are resolved.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story portrayed Maynard Howell as Robertson’s Fire Protection District Chief. Howell retired. This version has been updated. It also now includes a statement from the fire protection district.