The Central Coventry Fire District was granted another reprieve Friday morning when Kent County Superior Court Judge Brian P. Stern ruled against liquidating the cash-strapped district - for now.
Expert testimony presented during the 9:30 a.m. hearing regarding the impact of closing the fire district weighed heavily on Stern's decision to withhold a liquidation order. His main reasoning behind working to keep CCFD operational is that an emergency contingency plan has not been put into place, - a fact that makes for a large-scale public safety issue when considering the approximately 18,000 residents served by the district who would be without fire and emergency services.
Discussed once again in court Friday was the option to have neighboring fire districts temporarily cover Central Coventry if CCFD shuts down, but experts repeatedly stated to the court that's not a viable strategy, especially considering long-term coverage.
In an attempt to help the foundering fire district collect roughly $600,000 in back taxes owed by residents and business owners, Judge Stern ordered that all CCFD taxpayers must pay their taxes or face the possibility of a subpoena to explain in court why they have not done so. Future tax sales and property liens may also become a concern for residents who have failed to pay, as Special Master Richard Land was ordered to prepare a list of delinquent taxpayers as the first step in the process.
"As I indicated a year ago, this court does not have the authority to print money," said Judge Stern.
CCFD Board Attorney David D'Agostino explained that the directors are currently exploring options which include hiring private rescues, organizing volunteers and contracting other fire departments, to cover the district in the event of a complete shutdown.
On Oct. 21, voters approved a $5.6 million budget for fiscal 2013-2014 that was proposed by the district's 7-member Board of Directors. However, due to CCFD's operating expenses, contract obligations and outstanding debt, it is unlikely that the approved budget will be able to adequately fund the district for the year. On Oct. 17, Board members unanimously voted to recommend that the court order the district liquidated if a balanced budget was not possible, leading to today's evidentiary hearing to consider possible options.
According to Special Master Land, CCFD currently has enough cash in the bank to operate for another three weeks or so.
Stay with Coventry Patch for continued coverage of the Central Coventry Fire District Special Mastership process.