photo by Keegan Hamilton
Darran Kelly, chief of the Kinloch Fire Protection District
The Kinloch fire station is one of the nicest buildings in town, but that doesn't mean it's in good shape. The heater is broken, some of the windows are boarded-up, and until recently, a blue tarp, dubbed "the shower curtain," served as the portal through which the fire trucks would enter and leave when responding to emergencies.
The crumbling edifice is the home of the Kinloch Fire Protection District, the only all-volunteer fire department in St. Louis County. The building received several sorely-needed repairs in January when Chief Darran Kelly
placed a help-wanted ad on Craigslist.
"A few guys came out and put in carpet, tiled the floors and the showers, installed a new electric panel and donated some office furniture," recalls Kelly, a 29-year veteran of the force.
Last year the District had to sell a reserve fire truck for scrap metal to pay the electric bill. "It's not because we didn't ask for what was due to us," adds the chief, who oversees nearly two dozen firefighters. "St. Louis County put us in this position."
The Fire Protection District operates independently of the city of Kinloch and is governed by its own elected board. Yet they still must rely on the city's municipal taxes to cover their operating costs. For Kinloch -- a virtual ghost town and statistically the poorest of the county's 91 municipalities -- that means little money left for anything other than bare necessities.
In 2006 Kinloch signed on to be a part of a massive 550-acre commercial development called NorthPark
, which also encompasses the neighboring cities of Berkeley and Ferguson. Developers ClayCo and McEagle Properties (the company owned by controversial
businessman Paul McKee
) secured a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) deal with St. Louis County.
Kelly says he requested that the Fire Protection District be part of the TIF process. He believed they were entitled to receive funding when the project started to generate tax revenue. He was banking on more than $4.5 million in projected revenue to overhaul the fire station and provide monthly stipends for him and his firefighters. Earlier this year he found out his request was denied by St. Louis County's TIF Advisory Board.
Kelly wrote in a letter protesting the decision that, "After five years of meeting, discussing, planning and participating in the St. Louis County TIF process KFPD was unethically, deceivingly and irresponsibly dropped from the TIF budgeting and allocation." Mike Jones
, chairman of the NorthPark commission and a senior adviser to county executive Charlie Dooley
, says TIF funds are only intended for civic improvements and not for operating expenses like the fire department.
"Our position is that the fire department is a function of the city of Kinloch," Jones says. "And TIF proceeds are for land and infrastructure -- roads, utilities, sidewalks, curbs, lighting, etc. There's simply no basis for paying for city services from a TIF."
Jones says Berkeley received nearly $6 million from the NorthPark TIF and used the money to rehab their city hall and police station. Ferguson was awarded more than $500,000 and spent the money on re-paving roads. Kinloch is to receive approximately $5 million
Kelly, a mechanic by day, argues that Kinloch will eventually be home to nearly half of the buildings in NorthPark (construction is already underway in Berkeley and Ferguson but has not begun in Kinloch) and that his department will be in charge of extinguishing any fires and responding to calls for first aid.
"One of the guys from the developers, this jerk asked if our fire department could provide 'adequate protection for this development,'" Kelly recalls. "Well, it wasn't any concern when you had welfare people staying in the projects. You have a commercial development of this magnitude coming to the city and you don't include the Fire District. What the hell is wrong with that picture?"