The financial struggles mean the Civic Center cannot reopen, along with the elimination of popular programs.
HAZELWOOD, Mo. – Hazelwood’s financial future hangs by a thread.
The northern St. Louis County community may face bankruptcy.
The financial problems have been building for years, and the mayor says the city may not be able to keep things going much longer.
Mayor Matthew Robinson released a letter to residents on Wednesday.
It said that without voter or legal assistance, Chapter 9 bankruptcy in Missouri’s 26th-largest city and St. Louis County’s seventh-largest city could be inevitable.
This letter sheds light on what’s in store for 25,000 Hazelwood residents like Jennifer Guyton.
“Residents have been living with it for a while, I think they’re just starting to really feel it,” she said. “This is a very serious problem.”
The financial struggles mean the Civic Center cannot reopen, along with the scrapping of popular programs like the Limb and Leaf Collection and the Fourth of July fireworks show.
Mayor Robinson blamed the costly budget for funding the Robertson Fire Protection District.
It is one of three fire departments in the area.
Years ago, Hazelwood annexed lands throughout northern St. Louis County to build a larger tax base. It reached the Robertson Fire Department.
Country Representative Gretchen Bangert represents a large part of Hazelwood and after the redistribution it will be all of Hazelwood.
“The City of Hazelwood collects the money for the fire departments and the City of Hazelwood, it all collects at a rate and pays out to those counties,” she said. “The Robertson Fire District is higher than the others, so there’s extra money the city has to pay for these services.”
Tax increases have taken place since the original agreement.
As a taxpayer, Jennifer Guyton wanted to know more after seeing several tax rates rise.
She’s even the President of Citizens to Save Hazelwood & Fire Services.
“In 2014 it got a 0.50 cent tax increase pass and that bloated budget 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 complained of breaking ties,” she said.
Currently, the City of Hazelwood and Robertson Fire are engaged in litigation. In return, Hazelwood still has to pay Robertson more than $4.5 million a year until there is a solution.
Robinson said if the city can achieve more reasonable costs that are closer to what the city is paying for the Hazelwood fire department, those programs can be brought back.
The attorney representing Robertson Fire made the following statement:
The district was annexed by Hazelwood in 1995 with the agreement that it (Hazelwood) would pay the applicable tax rate to the district. Hazelwood came to the same agreement with the Florissant Valley Fire Protection District. In 2018, Hazelwood decided to withhold payment from Robertson, citing funding concerns. Robertson demanded payment for Hazelwood. When Hazelwood failed to pay the applicable fees, Robertson was forced to file a lawsuit to fund first responders.
Since then the dispute has remained unresolved. The parties have spent millions of dollars on lawyers in this dispute. Hazelwood has repeatedly hinted that they are in financial distress.
Robertson offered to team up with the Hazelwood Fire Department to save the city money, but that was turned down by Hazelwood.
The Florissant Valley Fire Protection District offered to take over the Hazelwood Fire Department, but Hazelwood turned it down.
Robertson acknowledges that Hazelwood may face long-term financial distress, but threats like those in the mayor’s recent letter are not the answer. Robertson is ready, willing, and able to work with Hazelwood to enact long-term solutions.
Hazelwood has been threatened with bankruptcy for years as a strategic point of negotiation in this legal dispute. Positioning continues.
On the positives, Robinson said in the letter how helpful the federal stimulus money has been to maintaining the city’s financial footing and economic development efforts.
“COVID funds have actually saved the town of Hazelwood,” Bangert said. “Bad things have happened with COVID, but it saved our city for a few more years.”
The city is currently holding back.
However, it is difficult to say for how long.
“Bankruptcy is inevitable, it will happen. It could take a few years,” said Bangert.
If Hazelwood files for bankruptcy, fire, police, and road maintenance will continue, but at greatly reduced capacity.
Banger said a committee has formed in Jefferson City to study this issue of annexations and see what solutions can come about.