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Norwich weighs change to fire tax plan

By Claire Bessette

Publication: theday.com

Published February 27. 2014 1:00PM   Updated February 27. 2014 11:56PM

Norwich — A major change in the city’s tax structure by spreading the cost of the city’s paid fire department might not have to wait for the 18-month charter revision process if the City Council approves two proposed ordinances redefining the paid fire department as a general benefit to the entire city.

The city’s split fire tax system has been an issue of contention at budget time for many years.

Property owners in the City Consolidated District (CCD) this year are paying an additional 5 mills in taxes to cover the $4.1 million cost of the paid fire department, on top of the citywide tax rate of 27.23 mills. Residents in the outlying five volunteer fire districts pay an additional 0.36 mills to cover $534,396 budgeted for volunteer firefighter pensions this year.

Two proposed ordinances co-sponsored by Mayor Deberey Hinchey and Alderwoman Sofee Noblick will be introduced at Monday’s City Council meeting that effectively would combine the costs of the paid fire department and the volunteer firefighter pension fund and include them both as part of the general tax rate for the entire city.

Hinchey and other city officials said Thursday the proposed ordinances would not expand the paid fire department into the five volunteer districts or otherwise change the fire service districts.

“It has nothing to do with how we value the volunteer fire departments,” Hinchey said. “They are still the valuable members in those communities. There’s no way we could afford to make them all paid.”

The council will not vote on the ordinances Monday but will schedule a public hearing for a future meeting on the two ordinances.

Last fall, the City Council directed the newly appointed charter revision commission to examine whether the CCD tax district should be eliminated and fire services taxed citywide. The commission will hold a public hearing at 6:30 p.m. March 13 for residents to comment on charter changes they would like to see.

But Corporation Counsel Michael Driscoll said the city charter also contains a provision that allows the City Council to decide whether a so-called “special benefit” — as the paid fire department is defined now in the charter — should be deemed a “general benefit.”

Driscoll said the council in the past has changed both sewer costs and garbage disposal from special benefits to general benefits through ordinances.

The proposed ordinance on the paid fire department states that fire coverage has “evolved significantly” since the charter provision was created in 1965, and the costs of providing adequate fire protection have increased “and in all likelihood will continue to increase.”

Norwich Fire Department Chief Kenneth Scandariato said the proposed ordinances in no way changes the current fire coverage system, in which volunteer departments respond first to properties within their districts and all departments provide mutual aid to one another.

But he said the paid fire department, which covers the central city and Greeneville, includes numerous public buildings supported and used by taxpayers who live throughout the city, including City Hall and annex buildings, Otis Library, Norwich Public Utilities facilities, 23 religious institutions, 13 schools, including Norwich Free Academy, along with several city parks and public properties.

The Norwich Fire Department also automatically responds with mutual aid to all schools during daytime hours, The William W. Backus Hospital and the Laurel Hill section of the city.

“This is about economics so that the costs can be distributed equitably,” Scandariato said. “It certainly isn’t to be perceived as anything but an economic issue, because it’s not.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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