Published March 09. 2014 4:00AM
Norwich - Several of the city's volunteer chiefs say there is mounting opposition to a proposal to spread the cost of the paid fire department to the entire city.
Two controversial proposed ordinances before the City Council effectively would combine the costs of the paid and volunteer departments and include them both as part of the general tax rate for the entire city.
Property owners in the City Consolidated District (CCD) this year are paying an additional 5 mills in taxes to cover a portion of the $9.1 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 in costs for those departments.
Taftville Fire Chief Timothy Jencks and Yantic Fire Chief Frank Blanchard say they have been fielding phone calls from area residents asking them why their taxes should go up to pay for fire protection in an area where they don't live.
Jencks said the proposal asks to spread out a tax reserved for a 3½-square-mile area covered by the paid fire department to the rest of the 29-square-mile city. He said taxpayers are rightly confused by a proposal that appears to only benefit a small portion of the city.
"There are a lot of taxpayers unhappy, myself included," Jencks said. "The taxes on my own home would go up."
Mayor Deberey Hinchey, who co-sponsored the proposed ordinance, said it will help to equalize taxation citywide by lowering the burden downtown. Proponents also say the city department is a general benefit to the entire city since it protects numerous public buildings.
All of the city's top 10 taxpayers, however, are outside the CCD in volunteer fire districts and would face larger tax increases with the change.
According to an analysis by city Comptroller Joshua Pothier, if the change had been made this fiscal year, a homeowner in the CCD with a house valued at $180,000 and assessed at $126,000 would have paid $382 less in real estate taxes. The owner of a house with the same value in a volunteer fire district would have paid an additional $208 in taxes.
With a recent drop in property assessments, Jencks said the proposal "couldn't have come at a worse time."
Both Jencks and Blanchard said their opposition has nothing to do with the fire departments or the jobs they perform, but rather, the taxes.
"People are questioning this in so many different ways," Blanchard said. "Honestly, I was caught by surprise when they published the agenda for the council meeting."
Blanchard is the chairman of the Norwich Community Development Corp. and owner of Prime Electric.
"Why should taxpayers pay an additional tax for perceived protection," he said. "This is not a paid versus volunteer thing. This is about money, money, money."
He said the tax will cost households several hundred dollars a year and businesses thousands of dollars. Others, however, say the change could boost downtown revitalization efforts.
Other taxpayers and firefighters have been expressing their opposition on a Face book page dedicated to the issue, "Eliminate the City of Norwich Fire Tax Proposal."
Hinchey said she has received mixed reactions to the proposal, even from residents who live in the volunteer districts who would see their taxes increased by the move to eliminate the central city fire tax district.
Hinchey said she and the council have not decided ahead of time how they will vote on the controversial proposal, saying "maybe it won't pass."
The "Eliminate the City of Norwich Fire Tax Proposal" Facebook page includes a paragraph specifically aimed at Alderwoman Sofee Noblick, a co-sponsor of the ordinances along with Hinchey and Alderman William Nash. Noblick is a landlord who owns more than a dozen apartment buildings, most of them in the CCD.
Noblick said Friday she is aware of the Facebook page posting that calls on her to recuse herself because she would personally benefit from the lower taxes in the CCD. Noblick said she does not plan to recuse herself but will consult with city Corporation Counsel Michael Driscoll this week for a legal opinion on the issue. "When I vote on budgets with tax increases, no one asks me to recuse myself," Noblick said.
As all seven City Council members live in Norwich, they would either face higher or lower taxes if the proposed ordinances are approved.
The City Council will hold a public hearing at its 6:30 p.m. meeting on March 17 at City Hall.
Despite the expectation of an overflow crowd, Hinchey said there are no plans to move the meeting to Kelly Middle School auditorium or other larger facility. Legal notices announcing the hearing at City Hall already have been published.