An emergency hearing was held at Kent County Superior Court on Thursday afternoon to address CCFD Special Master Richard Land's submission of an Emergency Petition to Authorize Liquidation of the foundering fire district following the rejection of his proposed 2012-2013 budget and tax levy on Monday.
Dozens of Central Coventry Fire personnel were present in front of Superior Court Judge Brian P. Stern, along with taxpayers, fire officials from the town's additional three fire districts, Police Chief Bryan Volpe, Town Manager Tom Hoover, Town Council President Gary Cote, state legislators and legal representation for all entities involved.
After summarizing his progress as Special Master and the outcome of Monday's budget meeting, Land told Judge Stern that the district has approximately $330,000 left in the bank and with a weekly operating budget of about $130,000, current operations can only be sustained for a few more weeks. When asked by Judge Stern what the intent was of his proposed budget, Land described his intentions of bridging the gap between this year and the next tax cycle, restructuring the firefighters' collective bargaining agreement and maintaining consistency with accurate tax rates - all goals that would enable him to develop a 5-year plan to repay the district's $2.2 million deficit incurred over the past several years.
"I want to be clear with the court and the voters - I told people at both the December and February meetings, that if a budget didn't pass, I couldn't recommend to this court in good faith that we continue to operate because we'd be doing so without a balanced budget," said Land. "Regrettably, the voters spoke and didn't pass the budget."
Land shared with the court the impact that the proposed tax increase would have, using a $100,000 home as an example. Using the former residential tax rate of $1.82 per thousand, a bill would be $182. A 42 percent increase to that would result in about $76 more annually - less than $20 per quarter.
"I understand it's hard times and I understand that people are struggling, but when you're making the decision between having fire and emergency services readily available versus not, $20 per quarter is hardly a good reason to say that you don't need them," he said.
It was noted by several speakers during the hearing, including Land, that a contributing factor in the rejection of the budget is thought to have been the frequent dissemination of misinformation and inaccurate figures through published advertisements and propaganda by those in opposition of moving the district forward.
"Part of the problem I think we had here is that information was sent out to people that wasn't necessarily accurate," said Land. "You would hope that the correct information would carry the day, but my concern is that sometimes people are swayed by information, particularly from a legislator on official state letterhead," Land continued, in reference to a letter sent by Rep. Patricia Morgan to her constituents in January that has been considered inaccurate and misleading by several parties.
"At this point with the budget being rejected and a limited amount of cash on hand, I don't believe I can continue to operate this district for very much longer," Land continued. "My concern is that this is a serious public safety issue. You have representatives from the other town fire districts in the room and I won't speak for them, but when you take away 10 firefighters per shift and five stations, leaving all fire and emergency services in the town to three other stations, you're leaving a huge gap in the system. From what I've been told, within 72 hours, the strain on the other districts will be unbearable and will lead to a breakdown in the system."
Representatives from Hopkins Hill and Coventry fire districts, Council President Gary Cote, along with CCFD Chief Andy Baynes, Captain Dave Gorman and Battalion Chief Scott Murray agreed with Land's public safety concern, all mentioning that not only Central Coventry residents would suffer if the fire district is shut down, but residents of neighboring districts and their fire/emergency personnel as well.
"Central Coventry Fire District provides an irreplaceable service and there's no expectation that the other districts can cover completely if this liquidation is allowed to go forward," said Cote. "It will not only put Central Coventry at risk, but also those in the other districts. From my standpoint, the most important aspect is public safety."
"The financial aspect of this issue is important, but not the sole driving force," said Judge Stern to Cote. "I appreciate your bluntness, that's what I'm trying to get my hands around."
Land went on to ask Judge Stern for one more chance to educate voters and arrange an opportunity for more CCFD taxpayers to vote on the budget and tax rate.
"At this point, I would ask the court that we have one more bite at the apple here," he said. "I would like the court to consider authorizing me to go ahead with shutting the district down, but in the meantime while I'm developing that process, I would like another opportunity to speak to the voters and hold an all-day referendum providing we have a meeting one night, get whatever information we can out to them and then give them the ability to vote over the entire next day. This would let us see if we can get more voters out there and more people understanding the issues and hopefully present and adopt the budget that will allow this district to continue on. I think the two things can be done simultaneously."
Apart from any past mismanagement within the district, another more recent concern, touched upon by CCFD firefighters' representation, Attorney Marc Gursky, was the voting process during Monday's meeting, which he described as "very disturbing". Gursky explained that after reviewing ballots and voter lists, it was discovered that 487 voters signed in using their home addresses, yet only 390 were simultaneously marked off on a qualified resident voter list and given paper bracelets to distinguish them as eligible to vote. He also stated that 432 eligible ballots were submitted - a significantly higher figure than the number of bracelets that were collected from voters after turning their ballots in. Apart from these discrepancies, it was determined on Thursday morning that at least 12 individuals who signed in as eligible voters do not reside in the Central Coventry district.
"Your Honor, you clearly have the authority to authorize a 'redo' as I'll put it - and there were a lot of problems with this vote," he said. "Because of that, I will join Mr. Land in requesting that you exercise that authority and hopefully the second time around might be a little smoother."
During additional commentary, residents Charles Vacca, Leo Blais, and Linda Bennett, along with CCFD Board President Joe Bonn and Board member Marie Fisher also requested that Judge Stern consider giving Land one last opportunity to keep the district operational for the benefit of all Coventry residents. Businessman John Assalone, who has frequently spoken against many administrative decisions made by members of the district and union, said he feels the liquidation process should be started unless those involved can present productive proposals to save the district substantial money going forward.
"Does this court believe that the majority of voters made the incorrect or correct decisions? That's not the court's role. It is our role to determine the next appropriate step," said Judge Stern following the final remarks from members of the gallery. "On one hand, the taxpayers have spoken - on the other hand, this is a significant public safety issue. It would be easy to say, 'it is what it is' and that the town and district will need to figure their problem out, but that's where equity comes into play."
"We will meet again tomorrow at 1 p.m. and I want to hear any additional proposals aside from those heard today," Judge Stern continued. "I would prefer that parties, even if they haven't gotten along before, would come to the table with several equitable solutions that people can stand behind. Unfortunately, until there is an emergency, people tend to wait. I want to be absolutely clear - the emergency is here. Tomorrow is a very important day and and within 24 hours, this court needs to make a decision to close down, liquidate or go to an alternative remedy."
Fire and town officials, along with legal counsel made plans to meet Thursday evening and/or Friday morning to discuss any and all possible options that may save Central Coventry Fire District from liquidation.
"Please take this seriously, I am terribly concerned about what the outcome may be, although it may be unavoidable. I hope that we can work through the issue in some way tomorrow and resolve the uncertainty," Judge Stern went on to say before court was adjourned.
Those planning on attending Friday's hearing should ask a member of security upon entering Kent County Superior Court (222 Quaker Ln., Warwick) which courtroom the hearing will be held in, as one had not been confirmed on Thursday.