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Property values, police issues featured in Ballwin budget talk

The vast majority of time spent at the Oct. 26 Ballwin board meeting was Chief Finance Officer Denise Keller’s explanation of Special Revenue Funds related to the 2021 budget. Within that presentation, property taxes and police surveillance items were easily the most prevalent areas of discussion.

     The Special Allocations Fund portion pretty much explained the effects of Covid-19 on what happened in Ballwin and nearly everywhere else in 2020.

  “It has no beginning or ending fund balance,” Keller said.  “Its purpose is to accumulate revenues to be sent to bond trustees to pay off TIF bonds. Revenues from 2020 are down 17 per cent from 2019 for a much greater decrease than most of the city’s sales taxes, which are down by just 4.3 per cent.”

     The TIF revenues are down a lot more because Ballwin still had Marshall’s (15425 Manchester Road, closed in late 2019) in revenue numbers for most of 2019. Keller expects those revenues as well as sales taxes to rise about three per cent in 2021, including collecting higher real estate taxes.

     Alderman Kevin Roach (Ward 2) immediately asked for an explanation of how the property tax protests and how that affects the payment of those bonds.

    “They pay them under protest (including Lowe’s at 14810 Manchester), then they don’t get released until May when there’s a general lawsuit filed by one of the school districts to release all protested taxes,” Keller said.  “They can also take their protest to the state…to the state tax commission.  Sometimes, the tax commission rules in their favor, and sometimes they don’t. But we’ve gotten charge backs of several hundred thousands of dollars which we had to give back to the payer because the state tax commission ruled in their favor and their assessed valuation has been reduced significantly from what it used to be.”

     “So, the property taxes are used to pay the bonds, and if the payee protests and succeeds, the income from the taxes are not sufficient to pay the bonds. Is that correct?” Roach added.

     Keller responded that part of the overall revenue is collected, but overall the total revenue has been reduced due to multiple successful protests.  She added that the general level of pilots (programs that provide debt and equity financing for real estate or real estate related transactions) is lower. And when they do a chargeback, they take it out of current revenues.

    City attorney Robert Jones then responded to an inquiry regarding the aforementioned month of May as the normal time for funds to be released.

      “It’s not just released in May, but it can be released quite a bit later,” Jones said.  “I handle tax appeals each year, and we were getting tax refunds as late as last week for 2019.  They reassess every two years.  So, you have a flurry of activity.”

     Keller added that just because they release some in May doesn’t mean they can’t take more away from the city later, depending on when the resident and business protests have been decided.

      The night’s other popular discussion section came under the sub-heading of Federal Asset Seizure Fund.  Keller mentioned that those are the cases regarding police work.

     Despite more limited revenues this year, Keller was happy to announce that 2020 began with a sizable fund balance. She added that $37,000 was extended on body cameras and another $13,000 on gun (tactical) lights and holsters for the officers. 

     Several other items are being budgeted for 2021, amounting to just under $65,000.  According to Keller, about $10,000 is not dedicated to anything specific, but there’s $11,000 dedicated to badges, $10,000 for maintenance expenses on the in-car camera system because it is out of warranty.  There’s $11,900 budgeted for an extended warranty on body-worn cameras that were purchased in April this year and will go out of warranty next April.  Also, there’s an evidence library associated with it.

      “That’s the software that goes with the body cameras,” explained Officer John Bergfeld,  filling in for vacationing Police Chief Doug Schaeffler. “The way it was explained to me, one warranty goes with the hardware.  The one other goes with the software so you can review the video that you take.”

     Keller added that another expense is the server for the Watchguard system, that is in need of replacement.  It’s going to be combined with Cloud Server.  So, the combination of that is expected to be $17,000. And the final expense for next year is a small surveillance drone as a cost of $5,000.

     Bergfeld explained the increased popularity of drones and they are currently being used in a wide variety of ways.  So, there will be a good deal of training needed, including flights used for the police and other city departments.

      “Sometimes, especially in bad weather, it’s hard for us to get a helicopter up there for a missing child or an older person who has walked away,” Bergfeld said.  “With these drones, we can get them up there quickly, and finding the person quickly. 

      “We had an incident several weeks ago where someone called in a fictitious hostage situation.  We had to call Chesterfield over, and they were able to get a drone up on the second floor, and when we went up to knock on the door, we had a permit set up and we were able to say, ‘Hey!  There’s an elderly lady coming up in a robe, and that was great intelligence for our officers on the scene.  So, that’s how we’re going to be using these things.”

     That led to a question regarding standards and policies regarding the use of drones just as ones had to be put in place for regarding body cameras.

    “There are policies out there that we will use as a starting point for us,” Bergfeld said. “People will not be just pulled over as general residents.  These will be used for situations that are justified.”

     Bergfeld added that some 10-12 officers would be selected for this project.  They will have to take certified 1-2-day classes, followed by written tests.

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