NCFD taxpayers meet Monday in final district meeting

NCFD taxpayers meet Monday in final district meeting

To be decided: How to handle surplus funds before merger

CUMBERLAND - North Cumberland Fire District residents are called to their final annual meeting this Monday, June 16, where they'll be asked to choose among budget options that Board of Trustees Chairman Phillip Koutsogiane describes as "philosophical" decision-making.

Residents will be together as the North Cumberland district for the last time to adopt a budget that after the November election will be taken over by a single, townwide district operating on whatever each of the four fire districts allocates.

Central to Monday's discussion: How much of the district's accumulated surplus should be turned over to the new district and how much should be put back into the pockets of North Cumberland residents?

No matter what's decided, a tax bill decrease is coming, perhaps as much as a one-time, 23 percent cut.

All who live in the district are eligible to attend and vote at the meeting held inside the station at the corner of Nate Whipple Highway and Arnold Mills Road beginning at 7 p.m. A quorum of 50 residents is required and a simple majority rules.

Trustees will lay out a series of options like this to fund the $1.83 million budget that without any applied surplus would need a $1.62 per thousand tax rate:

* Divide up nearly all of the estimated $440,364 accumulated surplus to reduce the tax rate to $1.21 per thousand.

* Apply $50,000 of the surplus to pay off some expenses and allow for unexpected overtime costs and then divvy up the remaining $390,364 surplus for a tax rate of $1.26.

* Keep aside that $50,000 plus pay $100,000 on the $200,000 note remaining on the fire truck, a 2009 Pierce pumper, leaving $290,364 in surplus to distribute, for a tax rate of $1.35.

* Finally, keep the surplus intact to donate to the consolidated district and adopt a $1.62 tax rate.

The current year, which ends June 30, was funded with a rate of $1.57. That was an 11-cent decrease over the previous year by trustees who were applying some surplus to the operating budget even a year ago in view of the coming merger.

The trustees meeting this past Monday evening voted to recommend the proposed budget at $1,838,143, down $16,135 over the current year, but decided not to adopt a recommendation on the rate, choosing, they said, to leave the decision to taxpayers on Monday.

During discussion, several, including John McCoy, who heads up the finance subcommittee, were supporting the $1.35 rate that allows the district to pay down the truck and build in a cushion for possible overtime and other expenses.

McCoy noted that the district will manage the new budget for only four months before turning it over to the consolidated district.

"We have a dual responsibility. We've got to start thinking more like we're all part of the Cumberland district."

Said Chairman Koutsogiane, "This is a very, very difficult decision with lots of philosophical discussions up and down and left to right. Me, personally, I feel a fiduciary agreement with the people of North Cumberland district ... but we have responsibility to the entire fire (new) district.

"My desire is to pay off the truck," he said. "I thought it was our obligation to come in (to the merged district) with as clean hands as we could."

He added, "We put together the numbers, now we'll let the general public decide."

Countering him was Bob Murray, the board's treasurer, who said he wants to return as much as possible to taxpayers through a $1.21 tax rate.

Murray told trustees, "We'll be giving to the district the newest asset out there." Even though about $200,000 is still owed on it, he said, it's a valuable asset. "I don't have a problem with it at all. If we pay it down, it becomes too much our burden."

Town Council member and accountant Art Lambi, on hand as a citizen, was also strongly pushing to return as much as possible to residents.

Lambi noted that in addition to the truck, the consolidated district will be inheriting more than $300,000 in accounts receivable, as well as the highest assessed real estate.

"We bring the most important thing to the table and that is the significant asset base that's a benefit that Valley Falls and Cumberland will realize immediately when their rate falls below $2.

"We may bring a truck loan, but we're also bringing significant assessed value."

Lambi suggested with built-in reserves, that even after removing the $440,000, North Cumberland will be turning over more cash than any other district.

Considering the coming increase next year under a consolidated district, he said, "it is only fair and right to give them the money back this year."

"I have to remind trustees, you're all trustees of the North Cumberland Fire District. You're responsibility is to this district. We have to look first at the taxpayers of this district."

North Cumberland's is the first of the final annual meetings for the town's four districts. Valley Falls and Cumberland voters gather later this month and Cumberland Hill has scheduled a final meeting in October.

But only Cumberland Hill and North Cumberland have surplus dollars to deal with.

The issue is further compounded by the expectation that under the consolidated board, tax rates in North Cumberland and Cumberland Hill will shoot upward to close to a flat $2 per thousand for residents and businesses.

That will be a cut for Valley Falls district residents and Cumberland district residents in Ashton and Berkeley, and especially a huge break for the Ashton-Berkeley area industries paying $5.43 per thousand on a tiered rate system.

Board members noted Monday that the actual savings per resident will vary widely among residents based on whether homes revalued this year are up or down or about the same.