Since being elected in late June, members of the Central Coventry Fire District Board of Directors have been been working to uncover lost and incomplete financial data, eliminate unnecessary expenses and investigate operating strategies moving forward, in addition to negotiating contracts and preparing a realistic budget for the cash-strapped district.
Despite their efforts, representatives from the judicial, legal and administrative sides of the ongoing case expressed concern and some skepticism during a Kent County Superior Court hearing Friday morning that the Board will not be able to present a feasible operating budget and tax rate to voters in time for the Annual Budget Meeting on Oct. 21.
One key element needed to accurately prepare a new budget is an agreed-upon contract between the firefighters' union and Board of Directors. During Wednesday's public meeting, Board attorney Dave D'Agostino stated that "less than six" confidential meetings had occurred between Board representatives and the firefighters' union for the purpose of Collective Bargain Agreement (CBA) negotiations. Another on Wednesday night and two more to be held before Oct. 9 will play a critical role in whether additional concessions will be made by the union and an amended CBA approved by both parties in time for the budget vote.
"I am very very skeptical that there's going to be an agreement reached," Marc Gursky, union counsel told Stern. He expressed his feeling that a lack of public discretion in regards to the personal opinions of Board members is a factor in the lack of meaningful negotiations, stating "this Board has exercised no discretion whatsoever" in reference to Wednesday's meeting which he described as "loaded with inflammatory remarks that aren't conducive to good-faith bargaining." Gursky went on to question the amount of time and experience Board members have had with the operations of a fire district.
"The board just doesn't seem at this point to have had the opportunity to really assimilate all of the information about the budget. By that I mean they don't know enough about the operations to really formulate one," said Gursky. "My concern is that folks are just throwing up their hands and saying 'this can't be done'. I think it can be done, but it requires a lot more attention to detail, a toning down of rhetoric, a serious examination of revenue and expenses and some hard work in a very short period of time."
He also said that if a contract agreement isn't reached and the union wins pending litigation against the district for not honoring the CBA, he believes that it would cost CCFD more money longterm if the contract was defaulted on than if it was honored.
Board President Fred Gralinski shared with Judge Stern his trepidation that going forward, the district may continue to face financial hardship, stating a decrease in the town's average household income and the CCFD's mounting expenses, including its debt repayment, will make it impossible for the district to "tax its way out" of the situation.
"Short term tweaking isn't going to get this job done," he said. "I see some very serious times ahead."
When Judge Stern asked how much money the district would need for an annual budget, including arranged debt repayment, Gralinski said $7.2 million if 10-year debt repayment plans can be arranged with creditors. This estimate has been repeatedly disputed by Special Master Rick Land who said Friday, "It's a little disconcerting to hear that $7.2 million figure being used again after the last hearing where those numbers were reviewed, and that number is not correct. For it to be presented again to this court as the budget number that will fund the district is another misrepresentation."
If taxpayers reject the proposed budget on Oct. 21, recent legislation sponsored by Rep. Scott Guthrie (often referred to as "The Guthrie Bill"), would allow the district to operate under the previous year’s fiscal budget, in CCFD's case - $5.2 million, falling far short of what is needed if no additional union concessions or payment plans with creditors are arranged.
In an attempt to expedite negotiations between the Board and union, Judge Stern again asked if a third-party mediator would be helpful. Because of time constraints, neither side agreed with the suggestion immediately, but were given until the end of the day to decide.
Before adjourning, Stern approved Board attorney D'Agostino's request to implement a series of actions, beginning with the Oct. 7 Board meeting, during which two or three proposed budget options will be selected by members to be provided to the court on Oct. 9 for informational purposes. At their Oct. 10 meeting, Board members will vote on which proposal to present to taxpayers during a public information session on Thursday, Oct. 17 in preparation for the Oct. 21 vote.
In addition, Gursky informed Judge Stern that he is considering presenting a separate budget proposal on behalf of the union.
An exact schedule of upcoming CCFD meetings and hearings will be published on Coventry Patch as soon as it is made available by the court.