Published Oct. 21 at 11:14 p.m., updated with additional photos Oct. 22 at 12:03 a.m.
At the conclusion of a 2-hour voting period - the third vote this year regarding a budget and tax levy for the foundering Central Coventry Fire District - taxpayers decided by a 757 to 136 vote margin to approve the Board of Director's proposed $5.6 million budget and the accompanying $2.50 residential and $3.75 per $1,000 commercial tax levies. According to board attorney Dave D'Agostino, the approved budget will raise about $4.9 million in tax revenue for the district.
In the absence of eleventh hour firefighter concessions, or court intervention, the decision will likely lead to the district's liquidation as the approved budget will not be adequate to operate the district going forward.
Voters also approved with a 841 to 140 vote margin the second of two ballot questions authorizing the district to adopt a two-tiered tax classification allowing for the above rates.
If voters had rejected the board's budget proposal, a $5.9 million budget would have been be imposed in compliance with bill H-6101, introduced by Rep. Scott Guthrie, making for $2.70 residential and $4.05 commercial tax rates. That budget would have raised approximately $5.3 million in tax revenue according to D'Agostino.
Voting during Monday's meeting began shortly after 7 p.m. and ran concurrently with a public question and answer session that touched upon multiple topics including firefighters' union concessions, debt liabilities for CCFD taxpayers, and what it would mean for the district if it was ultimately liquidated in terms of emergency services. In the past, the board mentioned several alternative options to research including privatizing services and forming a municipal fire district.
"We are doing the research for all of the options we can offer to the taxpayers of this district to make sure we offer you the best safety and security that we can," said board vice president Marie Baker when asked if the board had a plan in place in the event that the district ceases to operate. "We present ideas to the judge and he is going to help us choose which alternate plan will be put in place and make sure we all have ambulance and fire service the entire time. You'll always have coverage."
Despite passage of the proposed budget, the board's unanimous vote on Oct. 17 to recommend liquidation to the court if a balanced budget was not achieved will still be heard in Kent County Superior Court by Judge Brian Stern on Nov. 1 at 11 a.m. During an emergency hearing Monday morning, Judge Stern ordered that any party who wishes to address the court in regards to the board's recommendation can submit their position in writing on or before Oct. 29 for consideration and a ruling on Nov. 1.
"That decision may be to address the recommendation or to obtain additional information. It really depends on what is filed by Oct. 29 and what any number of interested parties may be presenting to the court in terms of questions, challenges or support for the board's recommendation," explained D'Agostino Monday night. "But to be clear, the board was asked by the judge whether to make that recommendation. That doesn't mean the work stops or that there aren't still things to consider. It was a recommendation only."
Monday's vote ensures that money is available to fund fire protection and emergency services for Central Coventry residents in the interim, but won't provide a conclusive answer regarding the district's future or repayment of its debt liability currently estimated upwards of $3.5 million.
"Although we don't have a concrete, one-size-fits-all solution, what we do have is a lot of discussion and a lot of possibilities on the table and it's going to take a lot of work," said board president Fred Gralinski. "We will have money tomorrow, it will be handled through the court and we would go into an alternative plan if things don't work out the way they are. You will not, I will not, we will not be without some form of rescue of fire service. We have no intention of leaving this district not taken care of."
Stay with Coventry Patch for continued coverage of the Central Coventry Fire District Special Mastership process.