Norwich Charter Revision Commission facing fire tax divide from the past

Norwich - The debate, angry exchanges and results of a meeting held in Norwich 14 years ago this week could foretell what issues and emotions await the newly formed Charter Revision Commission as it gets to work.

In May 1999, the then 11-member City Council appointed an 11-member Charter Revision Commission and asked it "to study and consider whether the paid fire service shall be a general benefit (service) or continue to be a special benefit (service)."

Knowing the issue would be volatile and bring out raw emotions and suspicions between the city's urban district paid fire department and the five outlying volunteer districts, the council appointed a paid firefighter, John Mathieu, and a retired volunteer fire chief, Joe Winski, to the commission.

The commission wrangled for months over spreading the fire tax throughout the city and whether protection of the urban downtown and its many public buildings benefits the entire city.

Arguments flared when then-city attorney Konstant Morell issued an opinion that the commission couldn't even consider the question, because property owners in the volunteer districts couldn't legally be asked to pay for a service they wouldn't receive. Some charter panelists disagreed with that ruling and continued the debate.

Two weeks later, another heated debate ensued, fueled by an attorney representing the volunteer districts who suggested cutting the high urban fire tax by slashing its budget, cutting staff and allowing volunteers to help cover the city center.

Last week, at a public hearing hosted by the new Charter Revision Commission, former Mayor Peter Nystrom made a similar suggestion - cut the exorbitant City Consolidated District fire tax by cutting the budget and allowing volunteers to help cover the city center.

"The arguments are the same," Norwich attorney P. Michael Lahan said Friday. Lahan was chairman of the former Charter Revision Commission and wrote the chapter on the fire tax. Lahan sent the report and a collection of meeting minutes to the new Charter Revision Commission.

After months of study, the former commission voted 6-4 to reject a move to spread the fire tax, saying it likely would be defeated at referendum after a bitter, angry fight.

"If the paid and volunteer fire companies are in the same pot that simmers quietly most of the time, is it worth risking allowing that pot to boil over by removing the lid that the CCD fire tax seems to represent?" the report said. "… A majority of the (commission) suggests that raising the issue would only exacerbate the tensions that already exist between the paid and volunteer fire companies and firefighters."

But the underlying problem remains and has worsened. In his report, Lahan wrote that in 1950, when the split tax was created, 50 percent of the city's grand list tax base was located in the CCD. In 2000, that total fell to 36 percent as businesses migrated out of downtown or closed.

This year, the CCD comprises 33 percent of the grand list, city Comptroller Josh Pothier said, meaning property owners in the CCD have less ability to pay the high costs of a paid fire department. The fire tax this year is 5 mills.

Current Charter Revision Commission Chairman Les King said the seven members have copies of the past commission's report, minutes and other information the earlier group considered.

Tensions between the volunteer and paid fire departments, supporters and opponents of spreading the fire tax flared again last month when Mayor Deberey Hinchey and two other aldermen proposed an ordinance to get rid of the dual fire tax system - a move that would have bypassed the charter process.

But they quickly withdrew the ordinance, citing a rash of abusive accusations that had started to circulate.

That put the issue back into the hands of the Charter Revision Commission, and it dominated the first public hearing. But tempers remained checked. King said he believes this commission's review of the controversial fire tax will not be as emotional and bitter.

The commission will start organizing how it will tackle the several issues the City Council charged it to study, as well as suggestions from the public at its next meeting, 6:30 p.m. April 10 at City Hall.

"Some of these things just can't be resolved," Lahan said. "You can kick the can down the road, and in 10 years, there won't be a clear solution, either."

c.bessette@theday.com

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