By SUSAN WEICH - ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
September 1, 2010
With his feet propped up on the massive oak table, Aaron Hilmer looks relaxed in the board room of the Mehlville Fire Protection District.
In the five years he's been chairman of the board, he pushed a ballot issue to lower taxes, and the district has added new fire houses, trucks and ambulances.
That's made him popular with some taxpayers, but his critics, like Local 1889 of the firefighters union, have questioned his methods and motives. They've filed 25 different lawsuits, employment and ethical complaints against the board.
Dennis Skelton, a former official with the Teamsters union, is one of the people who sued to try to stop the tax vote. He ran for the board in 2007 and alleges that Hilmer has surrounded himself with cronies who have painted a rosy picture of district finances.
"They've been spending like drunken sailors, they've spent down the reserves, and they've been put in a situation where they'll have to raise taxes again," he said. Not true, said Hilmer. The fire district is in good financial shape and has $12 million in reserve.
Other allegations by Skelton that the district engaged in a questionable land purchase have been investigated by the FBI and were found to be legal.
As for claims that Hilmer is anti-firefighter and anti-union, Hilmer said his father and grandfather were union members and that he considers firefighting a noble profession.
Recently, Hilmer rankled his opponents again after publishing a salary and benefit comparison for several neighboring fire agencies in the district newsletter. Firefighters described it as "vicious character attacks," but Hilmer said it was simply public information.
"Most people following the news probably don't understand why I would want to do this," Hilmer said. "People try to rip apart your background, your family."
What drove Hilmer to challenge fire district operations were the taxpayers, who he says were being ripped off.
Hilmer, 35, grew up a few miles from Mehlville's headquarters, in a three-bedroom brick ranch home where his parents and twin brother Adam, who is severely handicapped, still live. Hilmer is the oldest — by four minutes — and he has a younger sister, Kathleen.
His family has strong roots in the Lutheran religion; his great-grandfather was a minister, and Hilmer was educated at Lutheran South High School. After he graduated, he worked with his father, who owned a plumbing company, while he tried to figure out what he wanted to do.
Just before Hilmer turned 18, his dad had surgery to remove a brain tumor and suffered a stroke that left him permanently incapacitated. His mom, a nurse, became caregiver for his brother and dad, so Hilmer had to support his family. When he delved into his dad's business, he discovered it was flooded in debt.
"I went from hanging out with my friends to dealing with things like IRS levies, bill-paying and just trying to work," he said. The plumbing company folded, so Hilmer developed his own business, laying sewer lines.
In 1996, he started investing in the stock market, working in the sewer line business during the day, and staying up well past midnight trading options, commodities and bonds.
By the time he was 27, he was a multimillionaire. He married his girlfriend, Christine, and closed his sewer company. He contemplated going into the seminary.
Hilmer turned to philanthropy, donating more than $800,000 to Concordia Seminary, AM radio station KFUO and other faith-based groups. He installed lockers in an elementary school and volunteered his time at Trinity Lutheran Church in Soulard, which offers soup to the homeless.
The Rev. David Marth, pastor at Trinity, said, "I think if people really got to know Aaron, they would see a humble, caring man, who's extremely compassionate."
In 2003, Hilmer's stocks plummeted, and he lost most of his money. He lived off what he had left and wasn't sure what he'd do next, until August, when he read a story in the Post-Dispatch that outlined questionable practices in metro area fire protection districts.
At the time, the Mehlville district had a 33-cent tax increase on the ballot, so Hilmer tried to stop it. He made up a flier asking people to vote no, then spent $800 getting copies. He walked around the district for four weeks handing them out.
"I walked until my feet were bleeding," he said.
The tax increase passed overwhelmingly anyway, but after Hilmer attended a public forum on fire district consolidation a month later, he decided to run for office.
Two seats were open on the three-member board, so he asked Bonnie Stegman to join him on a reform platform. Stegman agreed, and the two were elected to office in April 2005.
Hilmer and Stegman made sweeping reforms. They changed the structure of the firefighters' pension plan, a move that cut taxpayer costs in half. They required firefighters to shoulder more health-care costs.
Hilmer's critics no longer pack district meetings, and he's back at work in the sewer business. He said he doesn't know what he'll be doing 10 years from now, but next year he will seek another term on the fire board.
This time he said he's better prepared to answer campaign questions like one a firefighter posed five years ago. He wanted to know what Hilmer knew about firefighting.
"I'd say I don't know anything about firefighting, but I think I've proven that I know how to run a fire district," he said.