Aaron Hilmer said he simply wants to continue what he started six years ago when first elected to the Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors.
“I’m not here to tell you what I’m going to fix when I’m elected,” he said. “I’ve already fixed it. I’m not going to tell you what I’m going to do. People in South County know what I’ve already done. That’s what’s up for re-election, my record.”
Hilmer has lived his 36 years in the Mehlville Fire Protection District. He was born in Mehlville and currently resides in Oakville. The son of a plumber and stay-at-home mom, Hilmer has a twin brother and younger sister. After graduating from Lutheran South High School, Hilmer was unsure of his future.
“I was probably the only kid in my graduating class who didn’t go to some type of school or into the military after high school,” he said. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”
He didn’t have long to decide. Just two days before his 18th birthday, Hilmer’s father suffered a stroke after surgery to remove a brain tumor and was left incapacitated.
His mother became the primary caregiver of both his father and brother, who was diagnosed with a severe chromosome defect when he was born.
“Things were pretty bleak back then,” he said.
Tasked with supporting his family at age 18, Hilmer went into a field similar to his father's, repairing sewer lines. He worked in the sewer business and provided for his family for 10 years.
Then, Hilmer turned to stocks and trading. He worked on sewers by day and read about investment speculation by night. Hilmer traded stock options, bonds and commodities, eventually trading full time.
“I always say I made a lot, gave away a lot and lost a lot,” he said. Hilmer donated much of his earnings to charity and continued to financially help his parents and grandparents.
Hilmer traded until 2008, when he went back into the sewer business, currently working in the city and county with a Master Drainlayers license.
It was in 2002 that he read a story in The Call about the pay and tax rate at Mehlville Fire.
“I was just incensed, and that’s when I became involved following it (fire district),” he said.
When the district asked voters to approve a 33-cent property tax increase in November 2004, Hilmer became active, printing and passing out flyers advocating against the 36-percent increase. District officials said the measure was necessary to keep ambulances on the streets and it passed 53 to 47 percent.
That December, Hilmer read two board of director seats were open within the district. In April of 2003, a board member died, so both the 4-year treasurer and 6-year chairman director positions were up for grabs.
“I couldn’t sleep that night,” he said. “I woke up next morning and felt like I had to do something. I don’t like politics. I don’t know anything about it. But I don’t view this as politics. To me this is about fixing something that was just so grossly wrong.”
Hilmer made contact with current board treasurer Bonnie Stegman, who had run unsuccessfully in 1999 and 2003 and started researching the district’s finances and procedures.
In April 2005, Hilmer and Stegman ran against the two firefighters’ union-backed incumbents and won, something that hadn’t happened in approximately 30 years.
“I ran on the platform that the Mehlville Fire Protection District was burning through tax dollars. I said firefighters are getting paid more than the governor of Missouri. They got 73 days off a year for vacation and sick leave and pension sums too large to imagine,” he said.
“If elected, we’re going to improve services, repair infrastructure and cut the tax rate by 36 percent. A lot of people said that’s impossible—those three are not congruent.”
While on the board, in April 2007, Hilmer put a measure to the voters to reduce the fire district's taxes, something never before done in the state or nation. The St. Louis County Circuit Court made the County Election Board remove the initiative because it was against state law for residents to vote to reduce their own taxes.
Hilmer then worked to change state law. Mike Gibbons, a Republican Missouri Senator representing parts of Fenton, Kirkwood and Webster Groves, sponsored and helped pass Senate Bill 711 in July 2008.
The bill, along with other provisions, said voters could vote to decrease their tax rates.
In April 2009, voters passed Props 1 and 2, asking to decrease the general tax levy by 36 cents and the pension tax levy by 4 cents. The measures passed by an overwhelming 79 and 76 percent.
Aside from lowering taxes, Hilmer said financial reform and improvements to the district's infrastructure are his biggest accomplishments.
The board made significant changes to the pension plan, health insurance and district buildings and equipment, Hilmer said.
Under the previous board, the district had a defined benefit pension plan. Hilmer said the firefighters put in nothing to their pension plan, while the taxpayers put in everything.
The current board changed the pension system to a defined contribution 401K-style plan.
“It was the first and only government entity in America to change the pension plan for future and current employees and withstand the legal onslaught that came from the firefighters’ union,” Hilmer said.
Without doing that, he said, the district wouldn’t have been able to ask voters to accept a lower tax rate.
Hilmer made similar changes to the district’s health insurance plan. The previous board estimated that by 2009, health insurance premiums would cost the district $4 million. Hilmer changed to a high deductible health plan with a health savings account. In 2011, healthcare will cost the district $1 million.
The plan is still better than people are going to find in the private sector, Hilmer said.
“We haven’t made any cuts or salary changes in four years,” he said. “I believe that 90 percent of employees have $100,000 pay packages.”
Hilmer's actions have not been without criticism. He and the board were sued unsuccessfully by the local firefighters' union, saying it was unfair to change the pension plans of current district employees.
There was also an investigation regarding the land for a new firehouse on Tesson Ferry Road. The Schuyler Corporation purchased the land and sold it later that day to the Mehlville Fire Protection District. The head of Schuyler has two sons who work for the fire district. However, investigations showed no indications that the deal was illegal.
Aside from financial reforms, Hilmer said he has improved services to the district’s residents.
In 2006, 80 percent of the district’s calls were medical related, yet not all firefighters were trained to respond to paramedic calls.
In six years, the board increased the number of vehicles with paramedics from 4 to 14, he said.
The district currently has five ambulances with a sixth running occasionally. All seven fire trucks have a paramedic on them with advanced life support, and all trucks have lifesaving equipment on them.
“If we get a call on a house and the ambulance is gone, we can send a pumper with everything and start administering services until an ambulance can get there,” he said.
“That’s the thing I’m most proud of, a tremendous improvement in service to the residents.”
Hilmer said the district now requires all employees to be trained as firefighters and paramedics. Some are also trained on how to install car seats for residents.
As far as buildings and equipment, the current board has built three new firehouses and has broken ground for a fourth, bought four fire trucks, a rescue squad and six ambulances.
“All paid for with cash and while cutting the tax rate almost in half,” he said. “Have I lived up to what I told people six years ago? I’d say I did it one better.”
Hilmer said the district was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2006. So, to counter the financial straits, the board levied more money than it needed to spend from 2005 to 2007 and built a cushion in the reserves.
The board then started what Hilmer calls a “planned spend down,” in which it began spending money out of the reserves to repair buildings and buy equipment for the district.
“We’re going to lessen the tax burden and use the reserves for capital expenses,” he said. “There are seven firehouses and we redid four—rebuilt 60 percent of the infrastructure with no debt.”
If elected, Hilmer said his goals for the next six years would be to maintain and put more of an emphasis on training.
“We got great reviews up in Sunset Hills from (Mayor) Bill Nolan and (Governor) Jay Nixon,” he said in reference to the New Year’s Eve tornado that hit Sunset Hills. “We’re going to continue to set the bar in terms of service.”
Hilmer is not without respect and appreciation for his fellow board members. He said Stegman and Secretary Ed Ryan have made it all possible, devoting continuous time and energy to projects.
Hilmer said he had no idea how hard chairing the board would be.
“It consumed me. It probably was a downfall of some relationships in my life,” he said. “Mehlville was my full-time job from 2005 to 2008. It took every ounce of what I had to accomplish this and I feel very fortunate voters gave me the opportunity.”
Below is a 10-year summary of the Mehlville Fire Protection District's residential tax rates, found on the St. Louis County website. Individual taxes may increase or decrease based on each resident's property assessment.MFPD Residential Tax Rate 2010 0.625 2009 0.565
2008 0.511 2007 0.559 2006 0.693 2005 0.855 2004 0.888 2003 0.894 2002 Not Available 2001 0.92 2000 0.92