Fire consolidation legislation filed, but not all on board

Fire consolidation legislation filed, but not all on board

As Pearson's plan moves ahead, Rep. MacBeth, others voice opposition

CUMBERLAND - On Tuesday, state Sen. Ryan Pearson filed the long-awaited legislation that he says will legally unify the town's four fire districts, Valley Falls, Cumberland, North Cumberland and Cumberland Hill.

The bill, in the works since a Town Council resolution of May 1, generally carries forward the council's direction by setting up the Cumberland Fire District managed by a seven-member elected committee that in September would take control of all funds, assets and property held by the four districts.

Acting independently of Town Hall, it would manage and oversee the four existing budgets, three of which would have been adopted in June of 2013.

It would adopt its first unified budget in June of 2014.

Aspects of the bill include:

* Grants the new district the power to borrow up to 50 percent of its operating budget - roughly $3.5 million based on an estimated $7 million budget - for capital improvements such as procuring real estate or fire apparatus or constructing buildings.

* Retains every current contract and every current employee of all four districts.

* Describes a process for electing an interim board in September followed by new balloting in November of 2014 and every subsequent regular town election, with one member from each council district and two at-large.

* Sets up an annual process for adopting new budgets, including public hearings and the ability of taxpayers to challenge a budget decision through a petition for a referendum.

* Limits the annual tax levy increase to no more than 4 percent.

Co-sponsored by state Sen. Roger Picard, the bill moves forward without the support of two Town Council members, Scott Schmitt and Arthur Lambi, nor the fire district leaders, and perhaps significantly at this stage, without the support of state Rep. Karen MacBeth, the senior member of Cumberland's legislative delegation.

"I can't support it," she told The Breeze Tuesday. MacBeth is predicting "double-digit tax rate increases for residents of the Cumberland Hill and North Cumberland fire districts.

At the same time, Cumberland Hill Fire District Chief Kenneth Finlay announced in a letter to The Breeze that the fire district commissioners will be presenting their own unification plan at a meeting in June that includes a budget and townwide tax rate. If endorsed, the commissioners will seek a single charter from the General Assembly, he said. (See letter page 22.)

Pearson says in a press release this week he's following "voter demand for one fire district" and introduced the bill at the request of the Town Council. He notes that in 2010, 80 percent of those voting approved the concept of a single fire district.

Pearson also says his bill has "critical elements added to protect our taxpayers."

Those are, he said, public notice and public hearings before adopting a budget, and the possibility of a referendum process if taxpayers object to a spending decision.

It also adds the tax levy cap of 4 percent that municipalities must adhere to.

He also notes that elections every two years allow voters to reconsider their choices for the board.

State Rep. Mia Ackerman told The Breeze she'll likely introduce the same or similar bill in the House, although she may omit Pearson's provision that would allow a multi-tiered tax system that would allow taxing commercial and industrial properties at a rate higher than homeowners.

But MacBeth, a Woonsocket school administrator who got her political start with Pearson on the Cumberland School Committee, isn't convinced and says members of the House of Representatives follow the lead of the hometown legislator before supporting bills affecting a particular community.

She raises many objections about the bill, beginning with the 2010 referendum. "When you hear consolidation, you have an assumption that a consolidation means savings; you don't have the assumption you'll see double-digit tax increase," she said.

The reference to tax increases for the two northern districts where taxes are lowest stems from more than one analysis of the cost of operating a merged district that doesn't close stations or lay off firefighters.

She contends the 2010 referendum specifically required the Town Council to produce a plan that spells out for citizens, for example, the unified budget and tax rate just as a Town Council subcommittee was producing before the May 1 resolution pushed that work aside.

She's critical of giving the fire district the right to borrow up to 50 percent of its annual operating budget without a vote of taxpayers.

And like Ackerman, she opposes a tax system that hits businesses harder.

Overall, MacBeth complains about an "11th-hour" push to pass Pearson's bill and suggests that given the half-century, by some accounts, that mergers have been discussed, another year won't matter.

Mayor Daniel McKee, who started the latest merger ball rolling three years ago, suggested of MacBeth's opposition, "At this point, I'm not sure I would want to be the obstructionist to fire consolidation, a plan in the works for 20 years. I wouldn't want that on my resume."

Ackerman, who was on Cumberland Town Council before winning a seat in the House last November, says she feels obligated to carry out the wishes of the Town Council resolution as well as voters' 2010 referendum decision.

"I have to respect the voters' wishes," she said. "Eighty percent of the town asked us to do this and the council adopted the resolution. Under that type of mandate, I feel obligated," she said.

Noting the two-tier tax plan in Cumberland Hill led to a voter revolt two years ago, she said, "Let's at least get it into committee where we can discuss and vet all the issues and move forward with it."

And about MacBeth's tax increase predictions, Ackerman said, "I don't determine tax rates. My job is the governance model. How taxes play out will be in the hands of the commissioners once they are elected."