Members of the Central Coventry Fire Department wrapped up an eventful and unpredictable week on what most consider to be a positive note on Friday.
At Thursday's emergency hearing, Superior Court Judge Brian P. Stern heard testimony from various members of the district, board, union, town and legal counsel in regards to a possible liquidation now being considered following the rejection of Land's proposed budget and tax rate on Monday night. After nearly three hours of deliberation, Judge Stern requested that any parties who had feasible ideas to keep the district afloat meet and formulate a solid plan to be presented to him in Superior Court for a final ruling at 1 p.m. on Friday - a mere 19 hours in the future.
After brainstorming individually overnight into Friday morning, Town Council President Gary Cote held an 11 a.m. meeting at Coventry Town Hall with fire union President Dave Gorman, CCFD Chief Andy Baynes, taxpayer and business owner John Assalone and Town Manager Tom Hoover, who was in contact with the Town's finance department for guidance.
"I was up until approximately 2-2:30 this morning trying to come up with a plan that was equitable to everyone involved, including the taxpayers, and a plan that I thought the court as well as Special Master Mr. Land would be willing and able to sign on to in all good conscience," said Cote.
According to Cote, the main points within this plan are as follows:
- The Town of Coventry is willing to take on the tax collecting and assessment of the administrative end of the Central Coventry Fire District, resulting in savings to the district in the form of rent no longer paid to the Town for use of the district's tax collector's office currently located in the Town Hall Annex on Flat River Road.
"We will accomplish that with two part-time employees that will be paid for out of the Central Coventry Fire District account, but all of their work will take place out of the Coventry Town Hall and in conjunction with our finance department," he said.
- It was agreed upon that CCFD could effectively close the Hill Farm Road station and reassign the manpower to another station to result in cost savings.
- Union President Dave Gorman agreed to concession bargain an additional $250,000 in savings this year from the firefighters' Collective Bargaining Agreement to help Land balance the fire district's budget. Land later stated that $250,000 in savings would result in about 12 cents per thousand dollars of assessed value.
"The only other thing that I would request on behalf of the court is that in conjunction with the Special Magistrate, an exit plan for his services be put into place for a timely exit and I believe that will equate to a cost savings to the district, also," said Cote. "The one thing that I would request of the Special Magistrate in this court is if this court sees fit to allow, for lack of a better term, the terminology that was used yesterday - 'a second bite at the apple' and another meeting to be held, I would request that he allow myself to present that budget and that case to the taxpayers of the Central Coventry Fire District."
- A final action agreed upon at the 11 a.m. meeting was a request that Judge Stern order the current Board of Directors to resign and allow a new election to take place in the future.
"I can't speak for the rest of the board at this time, but as its president, I agree to step down for the betterment of the men," said Board President Joe Bonn.
"I was elected to the board in October and haven't actually had the chance to do much of anything, but the only reason I will agree to step down is to keep these men working and for the safety of the community," said member Marie Fisher.
Cote, who spoke several times on Friday with recently-elected board member David Jervis who is currently in Florida, explained that Jervis has agreed to tender his resignation voluntary but reserves the right to run for his current position again if a future election takes place.
All of the individuals present at the Cote's Town Hall meeting then proceeded to address Judge Stern in favor of the proposed plans of action.
"I was at the meeting this morning with President Cote and the other members that he indicated and from an operational standpoint, I find that with the changes, there will be a negligible affect on our responses in the district while maintaining firefighter safety and public safety," said Chief Baynes.
"I think this morning's meeting was certainly productive and a kick in the butt to get us all to the table," said Gorman. "We are committed as we've always been to see Central Coventry staying afloat and operating and we've committed to getting an additional source or revenue to the Special Master as close as we can to $250,000. We're in favor of this plan 100 percent."
"A lot of things were said that were necessary to be said and I think they came to a really good compromise and I'm committed, for whatever it's worth, to publicly in whatever way I can, support their budget," said Assalone.
Resident and taxpayer William Wolfe shared his concerns regarding the number of discrepancies that took place during Monday's budget voting process, and requested that if Judge Stern authorizes another budget meeting and vote, that he allow the Coventry Board of Canvassers or another outside party to conduct the vote. Taxpayer and business owner Lou Raptakis agreed with Wolfe's statement. Judge Stern assured the gallery that he would act upon this request in the event of another budget vote.
"I support the efforts that have been made by Mr. Cote and the others that met this morning. One of the primary concerns that we've all had is the safety of the community and the men as well," said Land. "I rely on Chief Baynes to not only run the department but to make safety assessments as well and having him stand up and be confident that this can be accomplished while preserving the safety of the community as well as the firefighters is significant if not paramount."
After Judge Stern voiced his concerns about the possibility of a second budget vote being rejected, Land reiterated his sentiment from Thursday's meeting that he is confident he can plan for and organize a possible liquidation while also putting together a new budget using the changes proposed at the start of the hearing.
"The court is certainly able to fill the gaps in a necessary circumstance, and I have found that the health, safety and well-being of Central Coventry residents as well as those in neighboring districts will be at risk if the Central Coventry Fire Distirct is closed in the coming weeks," he said.
In an effort to simultaneously allow Land and members of the CCFD community another opportunity to pass a budget and plan a possible liquidation, while continuing to deliver emergency services, Judge Stern stated that there does need to be some additional cash-flow coming into the district. To make this happen, he ordered that the taxpayers of the Central Coventry Fire District pay taxes for the first, second and third quarters of this fiscal year as they become due, which will be held in a separate account by Land. The amount taxed will be at the rates approved by the taxpayers at the prior annual meeting - the continuation of the $1.82 per thousand residential tax levy that was used in the court-ordered voluntary tax invoices sent to taxpayers in October.
"The purpose of this order is to address the issue of providing a reasonable period of time to develop and implement the closure of the district or for taxpayers to approve a new levy," said Judge Stern. "While this court is issuing this order on an emergency basis, it will allow for taxpayers and others to be heard and will schedule a hearing the week of February 25 for those to be heard on this position, but the court is going to execute the order today requiring those taxes to be paid."
Judge Stern also approved Land's request for liquidation and will require him to submit a plan for liquidation within 14 days in order to be prepared for a new budget not passing. Land must also make public a report detailing the specifics of his new proposed budget and file it with the court as well. Judge Stern also recommended that the current CCFD board members resign their positions within one week, but be allowed to run again in a future election.
"From what the court has heard today, from the very hard work of some people and leaders here, it appears we have a construct of a proposal that can go back to be heard by the taxpayers of the Central Coventry Fire District," he continued. "I did not expect that after leaving court yesterday and coming back 20 or so hours later that everyone would have a complete set of financials for every line item - but the court is satisfied that a lot of work has gone on and it will allow a new vote on a different proposed budget. For the purposes of today, I'm happy to say we're in a very different position than I thought we would be in."