At Monday night's special meeting of the Central Coventry Fire District, taxpayers of the district rejected a 2012-2013 budget that would have allowed for the continuation of fire and emergency services, but at a substantial tax increase. A final tally showed 228 against the proposed budget and 204 in favor of and as a result of this decision, the district now faces a significant possibility of being liquidated.
Before the vote, hundreds of taxpayers gathered in the Coventry High School auditorium to view a presentation by Special Master Richard Land regarding the at-risk fire district's ongoing financial problems. The presentation outlined the progress made in recent months to shed light on how a $1.5 million deficit came about as well as Land's plan to keep CCFD operational while addressing a multitude of money issues and inaccuracies.
The proposed budget called for a 42% tax increase, bringing the old rate of $1.82 per thousand to $3.15.
According to Land's presentation (attached), had the budget been approved, the firefighters' union was willing to make modifications to its collective bargaining agreement (CBA) including a 3-year salary freeze, increased health insurance deductibles, reduced longevity pay, a post-employment health care reduction/freeze and set maximums for sick-leave, buy back and comp time. The concessions would have resulted in an estimated $885,000 savings over a 3-year period, with additional savings possible if long-term changes were made to the CBA.
Since being appointed by the court in October, Land had made significant progress for the district apart from contract negotiations, including the arrangement of tax sales to recoup some of the $300,00 in past due taxes from approximately 2008-2010. As part of an ongoing process, Land also collected nearly $73,000 in back taxes without tax sales. In addition, he held four meetings with legislators to discuss proposed changes including the ability to implement a supplemental tax, an annual audit mandate and the allowance of a tiered tax rate for the district (prior tiered taxation was found impermissible by law).
According to Land's presentation, his future goals were to implement a 5-year plan to pay back the district's debt, adhere to the court's desire to start fresh with a new board of directors and work to phase out the need for a Special Master.
After much discussion and commentary from those in attendance, registered taxpayers were given the opportunity to vote in favor of or against the proposed budget and tax levy, ultimately rejecting them by 24 votes.
Land met with Judge Brian Stern on Tuesday morning to weigh the short list of options available to the district; a shutdown or liquidation. After stressing to the public that voiding the firefighters' collective bargaining agreement is not an option, nor is filing for bankruptcy, Land submitted an Emergency Petition to Authorize Liquidation.
A hearing on Land's petition will be held on Thursday, Feb. 14 at 2 p.m., before the Out County Business Calendar, Courtroom 4D at Kent County Superior Court, 222 Quaker Lane, Warwick, RI 02886.
If liquidation is granted, it is unclear how fire and emergency services within the Central Coventry district would be provided to residents.