In Norwich, a good idea, bad execution

Norwich Mayor Deberey Hinchey's abrupt about-face on a controversial tax ordinance indicates a surprising level of na´vetÚ. Not only was she proposing changing the fundamental tax structure of the city, but in so doing she was inviting opposition from the volunteer fire companies, something no city politician should do.

If you are going to do something that big, that controversial, you slowly build support, reach compromises, make your case and don't make your move until you've counted the votes. Instead, the mayor, only a couple of months in office, just tossed her policy proposal out there. The opposition blasted it away with the strength of a firehouse knocking down a candle flame.

On Monday afternoon, Mayor Hinchey confirmed withdrawal of the ordinance.

The ordinance sought to do away with the special tax that property owners in the downtown and surrounding neighborhoods pay to support the paid, full-time fire department that serves the district. Under the proposed ordinance, the costs of the paid and volunteer departments - the ones serving the rest of Norwich - would have been combined and paid for through the city's general tax rate.

It makes sense, but making sense doesn't carry much weight in politics.

While eliminating the special tax may sound great, the flip side is that property owners outside the City Consolidated District (CCD), meaning the bulk of the city, would end up paying a higher tax with seemingly no return in better fire service.

The five volunteer departments that serve the Yantic, Taftville, Occum, Laurel Hill and East Great Plain neighborhoods quickly organized in opposition. Their volunteer work keeps taxes down in those communities. There was no appetite among them for seeing those taxes go up to underwrite the paid firefighters. There were also fears that once everyone was supporting the paid firefighting service, a push to extend its coverage could follow, endangering the volunteer tradition.

Property owners in the CCD pay an extra 5 mills in taxes to support the $9.1 million paid Norwich Fire Department. The city assesses the tax in addition to the general city tax rate of 27.33 mills. Residents elsewhere also pay an additional tax rate, but only 0.36 mills. The added taxes pay personnel-associated costs, such as workers' compensation coverage, pay and benefits for the paid department, and a pension system for volunteers. The city as a whole buys fire apparatus for all departments.

According to an analysis by Comptroller Joshua Pothier, if the ordinance had won approval a homeowner in the CCD with an assessment of $126,000 would have seen $382 in tax savings, using current fiscal year numbers. The owner of a house with the same assessment in a section served by volunteers would pay $208 more in taxes. It is not hard to figure out why the proposal faced opposition outside the CCD.

Yet a case could be made that the change would be good for Norwich as a whole.

Working to revitalize the downtown area should be a top policy priority. Making revitalization more difficult is the higher tax rate. Eliminating it has to help.

Even though the paid fire department serves only a 3.5-square-mile section, its services are vital to the entire city. The department protects some of the oldest, most densely developed neighborhoods. Quick response time is critical. A paid force, staffed around the clock, provides it. If a fire were to spread through the downtown or its surrounding neighborhoods, it would be devastating for the entire city.

Many of the large public buildings serving all residents are located in the district protected by the NFD. It is arguably fair, therefore, to spread the responsibility for paying for that protection across the city. And while all the Norwich departments will respond to large fires and other emergencies outside their districts, the paid force is uniquely poised to respond quickly and in force when disaster strikes elsewhere.

That's a tough case to make, requiring political acumen. None was on display in this instance.

The Democratic mayor co-sponsored the ordinance with the two Republican members of the council, Alderwoman Sofee Noblick and Alderman William Nash. Further undermining the idea was the fact Alderwoman Noblick stood to benefit personally. As the owner of several properties in the CCD, she would have seen annual tax savings approaching $3,000 if the ordinance won approval.

The proposal could still be raised with the commission reviewing possible City Charter changes, if this ham-fisted attempt did not kill it for good, that is.

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