The Missouri Supreme Court has ruled in the city of De Soto’s favor concerning litigation centered around the annexation of the Union Pacific Railroad’s car shop, which sits on a narrow strip of land between Main Street and the Joachim Creek in unincorporated Jefferson County just east of the city.
In 2018, the De Soto City Council moved to annex the car shop.
The De Soto Rural Fire Protection District, which provides service to the area, then lobbied for a state law that was passed in 2018 and would have forced the railroad to pay taxes to both the city and the fire district.
The city filed a lawsuit in August 2018 in Cole County Circuit Court in Jefferson City against Gov. Mike Parson and Attorney General Mike Schmitt to overturn the law, and in January 2020, the fire district joined the case on the side of Parson and Schmitt.
Circuit Judge Jon Beetem ruled against De Soto in November 2020.
The city then appealed the case to the Supreme Court, and after hearing oral arguments on May 12, the court handed down a unanimous ruling on July 22 that found for the city and ordered the circuit court to reverse its ruling.
The ruling was reminiscent of a 2013 case, in which the fire district hired a lobbying firm to pass a law enforcement bill that included an amendment effectively prohibiting De Soto from annexing property served by the fire district.
The Supreme Court eventually declared that law unconstitutional in 2016.
In both suits, the city and resident James Akers were named as plaintiffs.
Akers, now a member of the City Council and the city’s mayor, is a former fire chief and former De Soto Rural Fire employee.
In the recent case, lawyers for the city argued that the 2018 legislation was unconstitutional on a number of fronts, including that it was “special legislation” – written in a way that would affect only De Soto. Attorneys also argued that the law violated the Missouri Constitution’s requirement that legislation should concern itself with a single subject.
The original draft of the bill dealt with expanding the number of jurisdictions exempt from holding elections if the number of people who file for an office is equal to the number of offices up for election.
The provision allows school districts, small cities and fire protection and ambulance districts from having to foot the cost for non-contested elections.
However, the original two-page bill was amended to a six-page document, including a section that provided for the double taxation of property annexed by a city from a fire protection district. The clause was worded to refer to a first-class county with a population between 150,000 and 200,000 that adopted a charter form of government after Jan. 1, 2008.
Only Jefferson County qualifies under that standard.
The legislation similarly limits the cities in such a county that would be subject to the double-taxation standard to only De Soto, according to court documents.
“The (state) cannot offer any rational basis for why De Soto is targeted and yet all of the other municipalities within Jefferson County are not (or throughout the state, for that matter),” the city’s lawyers argued in a brief to the Supreme Court. “In fact, not only are the other cities exempt, but the statute deliberately ‘gerrymanders’ its way through Jefferson County, cleverly exempting all of the other cities which have fire departments, leaving only De Soto under the guise of the requirement. There is no rational basis for this targeted special treatment.”
The document noted that there are other cities around the state that have municipal fire departments that are surrounded by independent fire protection districts.
“What is so unique about this relationship that warrants such a law?” the ruling asks the court, and concludes that a general law could have been passed to apply to all such situations.
The Supreme Court, however, ultimately ruled the legislation violated the requirement that bills be restricted to a single subject, which was enough to overturn it.
“The subject of those amendments (that deal with De Soto) is the effect of municipal annexations of land formerly served by a fire protection district in a single, rigidly defined region of the state. Even taking the most generous view, the subject of those amendments is annexations, not ‘elections.’”
In the opinion, written by Chief Justice Paul Wilson, “to hold that both the changes and the amendments (to the bill) fairly relate to, have a natural connection with, or are a means of accomplishing a single subject is to read the prohibition against multiple subjects … so broadly that the (constitutional) phrase becomes meaningless.”
The court then ruled that because it cannot determine whether the amendment dealing with the De Soto annexation made a difference in whether the entire bill would have been approved by both the House of Representatives and the Senate, the entire piece of legislation is invalid.
De Soto City Manager Todd Melkus said he’s relieved the long-running litigation has been decided.
“It is good news for the city, but this has been an ongoing situation, long before I got here, and I feel the city and the fire district are in a different position today. We’re all in the same business of providing service to people, and I think we’re definitely more on the same page than we were when this began.”
Melkus said he doesn’t see the City Council pursuing the annexation, even with the verdict on the city’s side.
“In the time that I’ve been here, that hasn’t even been discussed,” he said. “Over the past few years, the city has passed some sales tax issues that have allowed us to better operate our fire department. But you know, even if they would have won the case, I don’t think the fire district would go for our jugular.”
Melkus said he has been involved in ongoing talks with the City Council, the fire district’s Board of Directors, De Soto Rural Chief Tom Fitzgerald and De Soto Fire Chief James Maupin.
“Not to say anything about the previous people, but I think it says something that we’re all in a better position now that this case has concluded than we were when we started,” Melkus said.
“There’s been a lot of time and money spent on this, and it’s just a relief that it’s done,” he said.
Melkus said he didn’t know how much the city spent on the case, but said it was likely “in the tens of thousands of dollars.”
Fitzgerald said he didn’t wish to characterize the ruling, but agreed the district and the city have better lines of communication today.
“I don’t know that I’d call it a good verdict or a not-good verdict. The Supreme Court ruled on a point of law,” he said. “We’ve had several conversations between the fire district and the city while this has been ongoing, and I’m a newer fire chief and there’s a newer city manager and we’ve both inherited this situation. I believe the thought process is that we will work together to solve this problem. I don’t know how that’s going to work out, but I think it’s way too soon in the process to assume that something’s going to happen one way or the other.
“The district will work toward what we feel is best, and the city will do so as well. To do that, we have to have a solid budget. That’s not rocket science, that’s Business 101. The same thing applies to De Soto. But I think we will both stay focused on what we have to do.”
The ruling was the second the Missouri Supreme Court has handed down this year in De Soto’s favor.
On June 15, the high court ruled that two high-ranking officers in the Police Department should not be held liable in a wrongful death lawsuit resulting from a 2018 high-speed pursuit that led to the death of a 16-year-old girl.
The case involved Sgt. Dirk Helms and former Police Chief Joe Edwards.
Originally Appeared Here