PROVIDENCE – Plans for consolidating Cumberland’s four fire districts are causing a rift in the town’s General Assembly delegation that could delay a merger until next year.
Sen. Ryan Pearson introduced a bill Tuesday to implement the Town Council’s plan for merging the districts with an election in September to pick a seven-person, non-partisan “fire committee” that would operate the district and set its budget. Included in his bill are what Pearson calls “taxpayer protections,” such as holding public hearings on proposed budget, a process that would let taxpayers petition for a referendum on any budget item and holding the district to the same 4 percent restriction on tax levies that govern cities and towns.
Except for those taxpayer protections, Pearson said, he merely took the resolution that was approved by the Town Council on May 1 and turned it into legislative language.
Rep. Karen MacBeth took to the House floor Wednesday to say Pearson’s bill could result in “double-digit” tax increases for people who live in the current North Cumberland and Cumberland fire districts.
MacBeth said she and the other representatives from Cumberland do not support Pearson’s bill as written.
Later on Wednesday, she and Rep. Mia Ackerman – who both say they support a merger but want to see it done correctly – suggested putting off the merger legislation until next year so all sides could come to an agreement about how it should be accomplished.
MacBeth in particular was miffed that Pearson issued a press release suggesting that she agreed with portions of her bill. She objected to that and the Legislative Press Service pulled the original release and issued a new one that removed the reference to MacBeth.
The way MacBeth tells it, the Town Council appointed a committee to study the merger. “That fell apart,” she said, “and when that fell apart, one member of the council, the president, (James Higgins) drew up a resolution and had it passed. It was then brought to us to draft legislation.”
She said the 4 percent restriction on tax increases in Pearson’s bill would be on the tax levy, not the rates taxpayers are charged in their respective districts.
“When you have four fire districts that have different rates right now,” MacBeth said, “and they merge and there is one tax rate set, there has been no information given nothing put in this legislation that would protect taxpayers from a double-digit tax increase, 10, 11 or 12 percent tax increase” in the new district’s first consolidated budget.
Because there has been no study done on what the first consolidated tax rate would be, MacBeth said, “we don’t know” what it would be. “And I’m not going back to my constituents with an ‘I don’t know.’”
Ackerman said Pearson’s bill includes the possibility of a multi-tier tax rate – taxing businesses and residences at different rates, for example – which she opposes. She said the Cumberland Hill Fire District, which is in her representative district, tried to get a two-tier rate that would have significantly hiked the tax bills of businesses in the district, but that was beaten back by voters. Among the businesses in the Cumberland Hill district are those in Highland Corporate Park.
“I am not going to have big corporations, big businesses in my district leaving because they might be taxed out of their businesses,” Ackerman said.
MacBeth said Wednesday, “I would like to send this back to the Town Council and, over the summer and into the fall, all of us meet together and bring forth legislation that we all agree on that is in the best interest of all the taxpayers.” She said Cumberland has been considering merging its fire districts for a long time, “and I’m not going to spend four or five weeks trying to put something together that has taken this long. When I do it, I want to make sure it is done right.”
“I was always under the impression,” Ackerman said, “and as a councilperson I was led to believe that when you merged districts there was a cost savings. There should be a savings attached. It does concern me if I am hearing there is a chance Cumberland Hill (residents) are going to see an increase.”
The operative word there, Pearson said later, is “could.” There could be an increase but nobody will know for sure for at least a year.
For the first year the merged district is in existence, it will use the budgets approved by the four separate districts and, during that time, ways could be found to save costs, the senator said.
“We’re not setting tax rates in this bill,” Pearson said, “we are setting a governance body for a consolidation the voters authorized.”
The new fire committee, he said, will have one year to “manage costs out of the system and get the costs down, by actions such as personnel reductions – there are currently four chiefs and four tax collectors – or selling surplus equipment.
Pearson said the House delegation has three options, they could introduce a bill identical to his, they could introduce their own bill, or they could do nothing. If MacBeth has changes she wants to see made, he said, she could include them in a bill that is introduced in the House.