ST. CHARLES COUNTY • New Melle is known for its German heritage, annual festival featuring fried gizzards and aggressive traffic enforcement.
Until about a year ago, the city’s reputation mainly was for the latter, but Police Chief Aaron Burkemper said he didn’t want the town of 475 to be known as a speed trap.
“People probably wouldn’t believe me, but being the ticket-writing guy gets old,” he said. “The people were mad at you, you felt like a jerk, and it gets hard to live with after awhile.”
He also said he heard complaints from business owners who said the town’s reputation for ticket-writing was costing them customers. Burkemper figured an increase in sales tax revenue could offset any loss in traffic fines.
So the chief said in January he had decided to take a new approach. He directed his two full-time officers and one part-timer to write more warnings and spend more time getting to know residents.
“There are only three subdivisions here of any size, so when you see somebody out, you stop, you roll down your window, and you just start talking,” he said.
Burkemper’s new philosophy just might have saved his department and even the town.
Faced with a mounting budget deficit, officials in New Melle voted last month to slash two full-time officers from the Police department — the only city service — but when word spread among the residents, they rallied.
“I have four little kids, and I need to know that my kids are going to be safe,” said resident Julie Mottert. “So when I see a police officer drive down my street, it puts a smile on my face.”
Several others pored over the books and showed it was about $2,000 cheaper for the city to keep all its officers through the end of the year. The loss in ticket revenue, even with the new policies, would have been more than their salaries.
Before a standing room only crowd of about 40 this month, the Board of Aldermen reversed its decision, three days before the cuts were to take effect.
After the applause in the audience died down, Burkemper said it was hard to put his feelings into words.
“Five years ago, these people would have been asking for my badge,” he said. “This support means more than these people will ever know.”
The move to spare two jobs right before the holidays, though, is a temporary fix. It will require New Melle to use up all of its reserve fund, about $35,000.
Without additional revenue, New Melle could end up like St. George, a St. Louis County municipality that dissolved a year ago because of a lack of funds.
New Melle, about 40 miles west of downtown St. Louis, encompasses less than two square miles and has struggled to attract new business, said Mayor Don Hendrich. In the last two years, its revenue took hits after a golf course and a Mexican restaurant were shuttered.
Its deficit was $32,000 in 2010, $41,000 in 2011 and is projected to be about $35,000 this year. The town gets money from real estate taxes, sales tax and a cellphone tower, but the biggest chunk, a projected $110,000 this year, comes from municipal court fines. Last year, the city took in nearly $117,000 from the summonses.
A proposal for a 25-cent property tax rate increase failed last April by a vote of 110-31. If a property tax increase doesn’t pass next year, the city will run out of money, said Greg Smothers, a financial consultant for New Melle.
Alderman Doug Bice said he reluctantly agreed to drain the reserves.
“The community is going to have to step up and pay because we’re going down,” he said. “There’s just no way around that, and it’s getting worse.”
Gary Schneider, the only alderman who voted against rehiring the officers, said he felt it wasn’t in the city’s best interest to do so.
“I think there was too much emotion in the room, and I didn’t get a good chance to really look at the numbers they were offering,” he said. “I just wasn’t confident that their feelings were representative of the whole city.”
Jim Winistoerfer, a former New Melle police officer who now owns Seven Stones Wine Garden, said he is torn about a tax increase to fund police salaries. He would like someone to patrol at night when his business is closed.
“There are so many other things the city needs, like sidewalks. We have the festival here every year, and people have to walk up Highway Z to get to it.”
But the group that worked to save the Police Department said they are committed to raising the necessary funds.
“Will I pay more taxes if I have to? Sure,” said Mottert. “Safety is a priority to me and my young family, and we plan on sticking around.”
Resident Maggie Troup started a nonprofit auxiliary to pay for police outreach projects.
“Anytime you can get fresh ideas and people coming together and rallying support, you can make things happen,” she said.
Troup’s husband, Chad, said he intended to run for the board, and resident Richard West said he will run for mayor. He also plans to use his own money to send out a newsletter to the residents informing them about the financial situation.
“We are more educated now, and we are stronger,” said West. “We know if we don’t pass this property tax, our police department is going by the wayside, so I’ll get out there every weekend and spread the news.”
Troup said she’s hoping that the recent work by residents will give the town another reason to be notable.
“After the meeting, I was just really proud to be part of this town, a good, caring community,” she said.