Without a doubt, the St. Clair Fire Protection District story surrounding Eric Hinson, its former chief and treasurer, was the top story of the year in and around St. Clair in 2013 as determined by a panel of Missourian employees.
During the course of the year, Hinson was indicted and found guilty of felony fraud and tax evasion and also was ordered to pay $615,298 in restitution after he misappropriated fire district funds for his own personal use.
He was sentenced to 35 months in prison for his crimes and began serving his sentence.
The story started to unfold in 2012, and it actually landed in the No. 3 spot in last year’s top stories list. At that time, an investigation into the misappropriation of funds was launched, and it was revealed that Hinson was connected to the wrongdoing.
Finishing in this year’s runner-up spot is what then St. Clair Ambulance District Assistant Chief Jamie Clayton referred to as “Phonegate.” During the first half of the year, it was discovered that ambulance board members and some of their spouses were using cellular telephones that were being paid for with taxpayer money.
In June, the ambulance board announced that members and spouses no longer will use cellphones at the expense of taxpayers.
In the No. 3 slot are the wastewater woes experienced by the city of St. Clair over the course of the year. More than $100,000 in unbudgeted funds were spent on wastewater-related projects in the spring, more money was spent later, and one of the main focuses of the 2014 budget was addressing the aging system.
Ending up fourth was the St. Clair R-XIII School District’s one-to-one digital learning initiative. Board members agreed to spend nearly a half-million dollars on Google Chromebooks that are scheduled to be placed in the hands of every junior and senior high school student starting in January.
At No. 5 is the Enhanced Enterprise Zone St. Clair applied for and received. After its approval, one business decided to take advantage of the tax credits provided as part of the EEZ.
Finishing sixth is the continuing saga centering on the St. Clair Regional Airport. The most significant events in 2013 surrounding the airport and the city’s attempt to close it were the Missouri Department of Transportation stating it will not oppose the closure and the state’s two U.S. senators cosponsoring a bill that would allow for closure.
As the year draws to a close, however, the facility remains open.
Seventh on the list are the massive changes that took place in the St. Clair R-XIII and Lonedell R-XIV administrative staffs during the year. In all, nine different St. Clair administrators were promoted or hired. Lonedell promoted two from within its ranks as superintendent and principal.
In the No. 8 position is the city’s new spray park and the successful first season it experienced. The spray park replaced the old community swimming pool, which was closed and removed in 2012.
Ending up ninth was the December murder of 57-year-old William J. Osborn at his home east of St. Clair. His 33-year-old son, William P. Osborn, admitted to killing his father, although he later pleaded not guilty. The story broke on Dec. 12.
Rounding out the top 10 was the success the Lonedell School District experienced this year. Housing slightly more than 300 students, the kindergarten through eighth-grade district made news three separate times for educational accomplishments earned within the state.
Other stories that were considered but failed to make the cut were the outdoor amphitheater project in Evergreen Park spearheaded by the Friends for Change young women’s group, the rush for entities in and around St. Clair to use solar power, the Jeffrey Weinhaus story that concluded with his sentencing at the end of November, and Velma Muessemeyer, also known as the “Rabbit Lady, getting into trouble with authorities a second time for housing hundreds of animals in her Parkway Village home but having the majority of them returned to her later through a judge’s order.
10. Lonedell Success
In January, the Lonedell R-XIV School District found out it was one of 10 in the entire state that received a perfect score on the Missouri School Improvement Program’s 2012 accreditation summary report. It tallied 80 out of a possible 80 points on the fifth revision of the state’s report card.
The MSIP 5 summary was based on academic achievement, high school readiness and attendance.
Then in August, the school district found out that it earned a 95.6 percent tally in the next round of MSIP 5 results to earn accreditation with distinction status. In the 2013 summary, Lonedell netted 76.5 points out of the possible 80.
Finally, in October, Lonedell found out it again was in elite company as the school was told it was one of 15 Missouri schools that earned exemplary Professional Learning Community school status for the 2013-14 academic year.
9. Osborn Murder
William P. Osborn, 33, of St. Clair pleaded not guilty to murdering his father days after he earlier had admitted to the killing.
Osborn entered the not guilty plea during a video arraignment on Dec. 16 from the Franklin County Jail. Associate Circuit Judge Dave Hoven accepted the plea and continued the case.
Osborn was being held on a $100,000 cash-only bond on charges of first-degree murder and armed criminal action in the death of William J. Osborn, 57.
During an interview with investigators, Osborn confessed to killing his father during an argument.
The victim’s body was found on Dec. 12, in his home on Osborn Lane off of Barton Road, east of St. Clair. Family members called the sheriff’s office that day after they found the victim inside the home north of the intersection of Highways 30 and 47.
Deputies responded and found the man lying on the floor. He had been shot multiple times, according to a probable cause statement filed with the court.
8. Spray Park
In May, St. Clair’s new $350,000 spray park in Evergreen Park opened for business, and it remained a popular attraction throughout the summer, especially on the warmest days.
The spray park replaced the old community swimming pool, which was closed and removed last year.
In March, the city reached an agreement with its Industrial Development Authority on terms to transfer ownership of Evergreen Park so the spray pad could be built there. An ordinance directed Mayor Ron Blum “to convey Evergreen Park” to the IDA so the spray park can be constructed and to simultaneously execute a lease with option to repurchase the Park Drive property at the end of the lease term.
The city’s lease will be annual with a payment not to exceed $35,000 and with 11 automatic one-year renewals. The city will then buy the park back for $1.
The spray park closed for the summer at the end of September.
7. Local School Administration Changes
When 2012-13 St. Clair High School Principal Kevin Hillman announced in January that he was leaving the R-XIII district, he set off a whirlwind of activity that led to three new principals being hired within the district and nine individuals in new administrative roles when the current academic year got under way.
When the final hiring was made — teacher Sande Racherbaumer as St. Clair Elementary School’s assistant principal — the R-XIII administrative team finally was set.
In Lonedell, Superintendent Fred VanBibber announced in February he was retiring. Over the next few weeks, Jen Ulrich was promoted from principal to superintendent for the 2013-14 school year while special education coordinator Sue Emmons was promoted to principal.
In St. Clair, Nadine Myers moved from SCES principal to assistant superintendent in the district, Steve Weeks was promoted from assistant principal to principal at that school, Larrinda Witt moved from assistant principal to principal at Edgar Murray, and Beth Hill was hired as the assistant principal at Murray.
Also, Mike Hunter was moved from assistant principal to principal at St. Clair High School, Jeff Hamlett moved from assistant principal at the junior high to assistant principal at SCHS, Ted Koenigsfeld moved from the junior high to become an assistant principal at the high school and Eric Lause was hired as SCJHS’s assistant principal.
6. St. Clair Airport
Since 2010, no story has received more ink in The St. Clair Missourian than the St. Clair Regional Airport. In fact, the multi-year saga was ranked as the local paper’s top story in 2010 and 2011 before it fell to the No. 5 slot last year.
In 2013, the year started with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Missouri Department of Transportation asking for “corrective action” status checks, and the year ended with more of those status checks sought.
In between — and the story still received more ink in 2013 than any other as about 20 stories were written — MoDOT said it will not oppose closure of the facility on the city’s north side and U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt of Missouri cosponsored legislation attached to the U.S. Transportation Bill that allowed for closure of the airport.
No action was taken on the bill in Congress, and the future of the facility continues to remain uncertain.
For years, city officials have said they want to close the airport to make room for retail development on the 80-acre site. Permission has to be granted by the FAA because the city obtained federal grant money to make improvements at the site.
In another development during 2013, Air Evac Lifeteam decided to relocate its emergency helicopter service from St. Clair to Sullivan. Air Evac said the move was necessary because of the uncertain status of St. Clair’s airport.
The Sullivan Air Evac facility opened around the first of December.
5. St. Clair EEZ
In June, after several months of work, the state approved the St. Clair Enhanced Enterprise Zone. Immediately, one local business, River’s Edge, started to take advantage of the tax breaks the zone allows as it began construction on a 100,000-square-foot warehouse in the Wagner Industrial Park.
Crews began clearing land at 25 TLC Parkway in late September.
The EEZ actually extends well beyond the city limits. It includes Parkway Village as well as land on both sides of the Interstate 44 corridor from Gray Summit to Stanton.
An EEZ works by supplying a tax abatement program for current businesses that want to expand or new businesses that want to relocate within the zone.
Language associated with the EEZ states that eligible facilities will receive a minimum property tax abatement of 50 percent for a minimum of 10 years. To qualify, the business must employ at least two new employees and spend a minimum of $100,000 in new investment for a new or expanding industry or $1 million for a replacement facility.
The local EEZ advisory board has established a maximum 80 percent abatement over 20 years.
In February, the EEZ ball got rolling when the city and the St. Clair Area Chamber of Commerce agreed on a contract that allowed Chamber Executive Director Angela Crawford to work through the application process.
4. R-XIII Digital
The St. Clair R-XIII School District Board of Education voted in June to purchase 1,400 Google Chromebooks for $431,000 to use on a one-to-one digital learning initiative in the junior and senior high schools starting this coming January.
The goal is to have full implementation of the program at the start of the 2014-15 academic year.
The purpose of the initiative is to complement textbook learning by putting a digital device in the hands of every older student in the district. Google Apps for Education will be the program used.
The money was included in the 2013-14 budget.
As the year progressed, the St. Clair administration and the school board worked on policies and plans associated with the initiative. Teachers and staff were trained.
In November and December, mandatory “Power Up” meetings were conducted with parents.
3. Wastewater Woes
From the start of the year to the finish, St. Clair’s aging wastewater system cost the city a lot of money, and plans were made to spend even more in 2014.
More than $100,000 in unbudgeted funds were spent on repairs in late winter and spring, with the bulk of that coming from 18 sludge hauls caused from heavy rains overflowing two of the city’s lagoons.
The city also contracted with Archer-Elgin Engineering, Surveying and Architecture to work with the city on finding a solution so the overflow does not happen again.
As the year progressed, more decisions were made centering on wastewater fixes. In October, aldermen approved three ordinances relating to the situation.
One allowed for a major adjustment in the budget by placing $320,000 in the city’s water and sewer fund. Childers told the aldermen that as much of the money as possible will come from cash on hand, but he estimated about $210,000 of the money will come from reserves.
During the final 2014 budget workshop in September, Blum presented an “engineer’s opinion” of probable project costs prepared by Archer that target the city’s “wastewater short-term priorities” to be considered in the coming year’s budget. In a nutshell, the report outlined four projects as well as a sanitary sewer master plan.
The estimated cost to prepare the sanitary sewer master plan is $98,000. The estimated cost of the four priority items is $480,000.
Both Blum and Childers said they believed some of the work could be accomplished in 2013.
The city also contracted with Feb Tech LLC to fix and/or replace two clarifiers at the wastewater treatment plant. As the year ended, a dispute over payment for services came up between the two entities.
In June, St. Clair Ambulance District board members ended what then-assistant Chief Jamie Clayton referred to as “Phonegate.”
During a board meeting, directors said they voluntarily had given up their free provided cellphone service that caused a stir in the community.
The decision announced during the June board meeting means that according to the board members, nine of the 10 personal cellphone lines the district currently had will no longer be used by board members or spouses. The only individual to continue to use a phone through the district was retiring Chief Bill Hollo.
Board Chairman Tony Hinson confirmed the decision and the lines affected.
The Missourian reported in May that all six of the ambulance district’s board members, two of their spouses and Hollo’s wife had district-provided cellphones paid for by taxpayers and through fees collected by the district through services provided. The service costs local taxpayers about $6,000 annually.
The agreed upon June change in the cellphone plan was “to eliminate board members having cellphones,” Clayton said.
Earlier, Hollo had told The Missourian that the board’s cellphone policy has been in place for several years.
In May, Hollo confirmed to The Missourian that district cellphones have been provided to any board member and his or her spouse who requested it and the district picks up the tab each month. However, the decision to allow the phones was the board’s and not Hollo’s.
Shortly after the story broke, Hollo officially announced he was retiring. However, his retirement had nothing to do with the cellphone situation.
1. Eric Hinson
This year’s Hinson saga started early when he was indicted in January on one felony count of fraud and five felony counts of tax evasion stemming from his misappropriation of funds from the St. Clair Fire Protection District.
As the year progressed the former chief and treasurer of the district admitted to the embezzlement, had his hearing delayed twice, was sentenced to 35 months in prison and ordered to pay full restitution for his crimes and began serving his sentence.
As the year comes to a close, the fire district board of directors hired Leslie Crews as the district’s new chief. Interim Chief Mike Kelley had filled in since Hinson resigned in 2011.
The fire district on several occasions has said it is more than ready to move on.
This June, Hinson was given his prison sentence by U.S. District Court Judge E. Richard Webber. Webber is the federal judge for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.
Hinson also was ordered to pay $615,298 in restitution. Of that amount, $515,298 went to the fire district while the other $100,000 was returned to the bonding company.
Hinson’s guilty plea in February came after his Jan. 9 indictment on fraud and multiple tax evasion charges involving his misuse of about $593,236 of district funds between January 2006 and September 2011.
In September 2012 it was revealed that only Hinson was involved in the fire district investigation that was spearheaded by the U.S. District Attorney’s Office and the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation unit. Additionally, Hinson filed false tax returns for the years 2006 through 2010, leaving total additional taxes due of $132,383, a press release stated.
The case was investigated by the St. Clair Police Department, Federal Bureau of Investigation and Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation, with the assistance of the St. Clair Fire Protection District. Assistant Attorney Hal Goldsmith handled the case for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
According to published reports, Goldsmith said in court filings that an “arrogant” Hinson treated the district’s coffers “as his own personal piggy bank.”
In January 2011, Hinson became the district fire chief. He resigned on Sept. 28, 2011, the same day the investigation was launched.
Hinson began serving his prison term in August.