TOM WARD - Single fire district, yes, but tax cap critical, too

TOM WARD - Single fire district, yes, but tax cap critical, too

I get the feeling it's not much more than sheer exhaustion that led Cumberland's Democratic Town Council, along with Republican Jeffrey Kearns, and Mayor Dan McKee, to finally come forward with what is an amazingly simple plan. After years of study and counter study, with ideas floated and pushback by firefighter unions and their district supporters, and with an eruption along the way in the North Cumberland Fire District, it has come to this. It's time to let the General Assembly abolish the town's four fire districts and merge them into one. Elect a board of seven to run it, and give them the authority to tax residents independently.

Councilor Art Lambi, the CPA and architect of the 2010 revolt in North Cumberland that followed a 17 percent tax increase, is left out. So is Scott Schmitt. Both are freshman Republicans. Schmitt raised Cain last year in the Cumberland Hill Fire District after leaders there tried to placate residents with a tax increase that crushed businesses, but left homeowners alone. Thanks to Schmitt, that effort failed. Soon after, he was elected to the Town Council.

Lambi, Schmitt, and Democrat William Murray were put on a merger study committee back in December. Last week, their months of work was brushed aside by Council President James Higgins when it became clear that, no matter what they had to say, they didn't have the votes to change anything the Democrat majority wanted, and the deal was done. The General Assembly, running out of time, needed the ordinance now. Last week's 5-2 vote was a mere formality.

On its surface, I imagine residents will be generally supportive. All the things they've been screaming about the loudest - four fire chiefs, each in his kingdom; overlap of services, and firefighters and their families turning out in numbers at annual fire district meetings to elect friendly board members, control the agenda, the budget, and ultimately, raises and benefits - all of this is eliminated.

It was a world where Cumberland Hill thrived on Highland Corporate Park taxes, while Valley Falls had no such funding. North Cumberland was backed almost entirely by homeowners.

Now, all of this inequity goes away.

In fairness, though, some of this - with firefighter and district support - has come to pass during this never-ending recession, as money stopped flowing. Two districts share a chief, and equipment and training is used across districts all the time. Purchases are made with nearby resources in mind. It is not, as some think, a spending free for all.

Still, there is reason for caution here with the Council's passage of the ordinance. While McKee is confident of passage at the Statehouse, there is one important matter that also needs to be settled - the tax cap. Right now, cities and towns have to live with a state-mandated tax levy cap of 4 percent per year. Fire districts have no such limit. Cumberland Rep. Jim McLaughlin has a bill in the House that would put the same taxing limit on all fire districts in the state, and I'm told he and others believe it has a good chance of passage. As for me, I've been around too long and seen too much, and until I see the dry ink of the governor's signature on the bill, I won't count on a thing. So a concerning scenario is possible - a single district with no tax cap.

Should Cumberland's single district pass the General Assembly, then this fall voters will be electing a panel of seven new town-wide fire commissioners who will supervise the department and send you a tax bill each year. Like the Town Council, two commissioners would be elected "at large" from all voters, and the other five would be elected from within their districts.

By the election we will know: If McLaughlin's tax cap bill has passed the Assembly and it applies to the new, unified fire district, taxpayers will be better served, but will still need to pay attention to the new issues as they evolve. But if there is no tax cap and no spending limits on the freshman class of commissioners, who will serve only a one-year term, voters will need to be extremely vigilant.

Ward is publisher of The Valley Breeze newspapers