By simply taking a look at the parking lot of the Coventry Town Hall Annex shortly before 7 p.m. on Monday, it was apparent that it was not going to be a normal meeting. Hundreds of citizens that reside within the Central Coventry Fire District showed up at this year's annual Board of Directors meeting to vote on an increase in fire taxes.
The meeting that was scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. did not start until after 8:00 due to the largely unexpected number of voters that had to sign in in order to have their votes counted. Despite the rainy evening, the line of residents wrapped partially around the building for the better part of an hour, making for a near-capacity audience.
In order to quell some of the major questions and concerns that many of the attendees had, the Board decided to hold an informational section before discussing agenda items. About a dozen members of the community shared their concerns with the Board, speaking out against their tax rates and how they are calculated, showing concern for how District's money is spent and several residents suggesting that the town merge all its fire districts into one.
CCFD Chief Bob Seltzer and Board President Girard Bouchard Jr. attempted to answer each of the questions, explaining points like how the new tax rate would be calculated using the most recent property revaluation figures, and therefore would vary from resident to resident. Seltzer also explained the District's need for its most recently purchased ladder truck that several residents spoke out against, as well as expressing his advocation for having one fire district for the entire town.
In a packet handed out to voters as they arrived, the Tax Rate Resolution stated "a tax of not more than $4.45 for commerican and industrial properties and not more than $2.55 for residential properties, on each $1,000 of ratable real estate, be levied and assesed...residential property on leased land will be taxed at the residential rate (including mobile homes)..." Last year's residential fire tax rate in the district was $1.82 per $1,000.
After several residents expressed the fact that members of the Town simply do not have enough money to pay higher taxes, Seltzer reminded them of their right to vote for or against the proposed budget.
"We were very sensitive to that when we came up with the budget," he said. "If you want to vote it down, you can. If the audience wants to propose a different rate or budget, we are open to that. We have a very open Board of Directors that meet every month, and quite frankly, no one comes to our meetings. We always welcome input and my door is always open."
After the informational section of the meeting came to a close at 8:45 p.m., the Board began making its way through the agenda, with the voters passing motions to accept the minutes from last year's meeting as well as the tax collector, treasurer and chief's reports.
Agenda item number nine, if passed, would have elected two new members to the Board of Directors. A fierce discussion between Board members and the voters began when resident Leo Blais moved to elect officials after the budget discussion, bringing the meeting's progression to a screeching halt. Blais and resident Conrad Burns then brought to the attention of everyone present, discrepancies in the language of the Town Charter that would essentially yield any and all decisions made at the meeting void.
Chief Seltzer later explained that when the charter was changed in 2007, residents had voted in favor of changing the annual meeting from September to the first Monday in October. He went on to explain that at some point between the voters' decision and the General Assembly, the decision was never passed.
"In the past, if it is a 'meeting of the people', like tonight's meeting was, the Attorney General usually sides with what the people want," Seltzer said. "Rulings in the past have shown that annual meetings do not have to follow Open Meetings Laws, so no one saw a problem with holding this or any past meetings. It is all being changed and corrected based on the will of the people. It was nobody's mistake - it happened during the process and nobody did it on purpose. We did our best to stay with what the people want."
Blais suggested to the Board that it allow the two current members to continue holding their positions until their replacements have been elected at a special election meeting six months from now. Coventry resident and owner of several mobile home parks, John Assalone, also put forward for consideration that the Board adjourn Monday's meeting and vigorously attempt to collect the $859,000 in unpaid taxes from the prior year in lieu of another tax increase.
"I suggest no tax increase for at least six months, so you can get your house in order and get an attorney that is going to deal with the people that haven't paid their share - another $800,000 in hand is going to solve most of your problems," said Assalone. "Get that money in here, get your new members, postpone the meeting for six months and move forward."
Before adjourning the meeting, the Board of Directors explained that the tax bill being sent out this year will contain the same rate as the 2010 bill, which includes calculations based on the 2009 evaluation, not the most recent revaluation in which property values were significantly decreased.
The rescheduled CCFD tax meeting and board member election will take place on Monday, April 2, 2012.