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Norwich withdraws ordinances that would have changed fire taxes

By Claire Bessette

Publication: theday.com

Published March 10. 2014 4:00PM   Updated March 11. 2014 12:28AM
Charter commission will consider issue

Norwich — Two controversial proposed ordinances that would have spread the cost of the central city’s paid fire department citywide have been withdrawn amid growing opposition from the five volunteer fire departments and property owners in their districts who would have been hit by the tax increase.

Mayor Deberey Hinchey and co-sponsors Republican Aldermen William Nash and Sofee Noblick jointly withdrew the two ordinances as city officials met Monday to set the agenda for next Monday’s council meeting. A public hearing on the controversial measures was expected to draw an overflow crowd to the Council Chambers.

The first proposed ordinance would have declared that the cost of the central city paid fire department is a general benefit to all Norwich taxpayers. Currently, property owners in the central City Consolidated District (CCD) pay an additional 5 mills to cover the personnel costs of the paid department, on top of the 27.23-mill citywide tax rate. The second ordinance declared the same for the volunteer firefighter pension fund, which is levied as a much smaller added tax — 0.36 mills this year — for property owners in the five volunteer districts.

“The three of us decided to withdraw it,” Hinchey said after Monday’s agenda-setting meeting. “I'll make no further comment.”

Since the proposals were introduced at the March 3 council meeting, opposition has been mounting among the volunteer departments and taxpayers objecting to the concept that the paid department is a citywide benefit.

Hinchey had argued that the move was meant to boost economic development in the downtown and central city areas burdened by the fire tax. Supporters also argued the paid fire department protects numerous city properties, including City Hall, schools, parks and Otis Library.

Nash, however, said he was disappointed that the measures were withdrawn, but he deferred to the mayor’s wishes Monday.

Nash said he was frustrated by the ramped-up opposition that centered on perceived threats — unfounded, he stressed — to the volunteer fire departments.

“From the very beginning, all I wanted was a conversation on a 50-year-old tax system,” Nash said. “All I want to know is if this is the best way (to pay for fire coverage). I don’t necessarily believe it is. We need to look at our system, and decide why this is crushing the CCD with taxes.”

Nash said the move to suddenly propose ordinances to change the tax system probably was not the best method. He would have liked the council to set up a study committee to look at the issue and make a recommendation.

“Are we one city, or six communities?” Nash said. “If our core rots, it’s only going to be a matter of time until the rest of the city rots. The grand list is declining. Our housing values are declining. I’m scared we’ll never consider it. We’re at an unsustainable level of taxing. We’ve got to be willing to do something drastic to improve the grand list.”

But the issue is not dead, and supporters and opponents can take their arguments to a new venue on Thursday.

Last fall, the City Council appointed a seven-member Charter Revision Commission and asked members to study eliminating the dual fire tax system as one of several specific issues to be considered.

The Charter Revision Commission will hold a public hearing at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in Room 335 at City Hall. The commission will have 18 months to study and make its recommendations, which if accepted by the City Council, would be sent to the voters in a referendum.

Yantic Volunteer Fire Department Chief Frank Blanchard said Monday that charter revision would be a proper venue for the subject to be vetted.

“I think this decision is the right decision for everyone involved,” Blanchard said of the move by the aldermen to pull the proposal.

Taftville Volunteer Fire Department Chief Timothy Jencks agreed that charter revision would give more of an opportunity to all taxpayers to make a choice on any change in the way residents are taxed.

Both said they had heard from people in their districts calling for a referendum on the issue rather than simply a vote by the council on ordinances.

Nash — who was not on the council when the charter revision panel was established in November — said he fears placing the controversial issue in that body’s hands could jeopardize other valuable charter changes the group may propose. If eliminating the CCD fire tax is proposed, he said opposition could swell to defeat all charter changes in one swoop.

“I thought this was a way to start talking about doing something differently,” Nash said of the ordinances.

Staff Writer Greg Smith contributed to this report

c.bessette@theday.com

g.smith@theday.com

UBox:

Norwich controversial fire tax issue moves to Charter Revision Commission.

Charter Revision Commission public hearing:

Thursday, March 13

6:30 p.m.

City Hall room 335.

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