Financial difficulties mean the Civic Center cannot reopen, along with the elimination of popular programs.
HAZELWOOD, Mo. — Hazelwood’s financial future is hanging by a thread.
The North County St. Louis community could face bankruptcy.
Financial difficulties have been piling up for years, and the mayor says the city may not be able to sustain things much longer.
On Wednesday, Mayor Matthew Robinson mailed a letter to residents.
He says without a voter or legal recourse, a Chapter 9 bankruptcy of Missouri’s 26th-largest city and St. Louis County’s 7th-largest city could be inevitable.
This letter shed light on what 25,000 Hazelwood residents like Jennifer Guyton face.
“The locals have been living with it for a while, I think they’re really starting to feel it,” she said. “This is a very serious problem.”
Financial difficulties mean the Civic Center cannot reopen, along with the elimination of popular programs such as the branch and leaf collection and the July 4 fireworks display.
Mayor Robinson blamed the costly budget that funds the Robertson Fire Protection District.
It is one of three fire departments in the region.
Years ago, Hazelwood annexed land throughout northern St. Louis County to build a larger tax base. In this process, he reached the Robertson Fire Department.
State Representative Gretchen Bangert represents much of Hazelwood and after the redistricting it will be all of Hazelwood.
“The City of Hazelwood collects the money for the fire department and the City of Hazelwood, it’s all collected at a certain rate and given to those districts,” she said. “Robertson’s fire district is higher than the others, so there is additional money the city has to pay for these services.”
Since the original agreement, tax hikes have since taken place.
As a taxpayer, Jennifer Guyton wanted to know more after seeing several tax rates increase.
She is also president of Citizens to save Hazelwood and the fire departments.
“In 2014 he got a 0.50 cent tax increase pass and that budget bloated a little bit and made it harder for the city to pay and they couldn’t pay, so in 2018 they canceled the contract and Robertson turned around and sued for a break in contact,” she said.
Currently, the City of Hazelwood and Robertson Fire are on trial. In turn, Hazelwood still has to pay Robertson more than $4.5 million a year, until there is a resolution.
Robinson said if the city can get a more reasonable cost closer to what the city pays for the Hazelwood Fire Department, those programs can be reinstated.
The attorney representing Robertson Fire provided the following statement:
The district was annexed by Hazelwood in 1995 on the understanding that he (Hazelwood) would pay the district the applicable tax rate. Hazelwood reached the same agreement with the Florissant Valley Fire Protection District. In 2018, Hazelwood decided to withhold payment from Robertson citing funding issues. Robertson demanded payment on Hazelwood. When Hazelwood failed to pay the applicable fees, Robertson was forced to take legal action to fund first responders.
Since that time, the dispute has not been resolved. The parties have spent millions of dollars on lawyers in this dispute. Hazelwood has continually indicated that they are in financial difficulty.
Robertson proposed merging with the Hazelwood Fire Department to save the city money, but this was rejected by Hazelwood.
The Florissant Valley Fire Protection District offered to take over the Hazelwood Fire Department, but this was rejected by Hazelwood.
Robertson acknowledges that Hazelwood may be in long-term financial trouble, however, 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.
Hazelwood has been threatening bankruptcy for years as a strategic negotiating point in this litigation. Positioning continues.
On the positives, Robinson said in the letter how helpful federal stimulus money has been in maintaining the city’s financial stability and economic development efforts.
“COVID money actually saved the town of Hazelwood,” Bangert said. “Bad things happened with COVID but it saved our city for another few years.”
Right now, the city is clinging.
However, it is difficult to say how long.
“Bankruptcy is inevitable, it’s going to happen. It could take a few years,” Bangert said.
If Hazelwood files for bankruptcy, fire, police and street maintenance will continue, but in much reduced capacity.
Banger said a committee has formed in Jefferson City to study the issue of annexations and to see what solutions can be found.