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Monday, December 10, 2012

Some local Fire District taxes among state’s lowest

Except for a few that are among the highest
Charlestown Fire District tax among the lowest in Rhode Island
By Will Collette

GoLocalProv recently published a comparison of fire district taxes around the state, largely for those areas that do not have professional, municipal fire departments whose costs are factored into property taxes. See their chart at the end of this article.

In our area, most areas are served by the 43 quasi-public fire districts that have the authority to levy their own property-based taxes to fund themselves.

Cathy and I are covered by the Dunn’s Corner Fire District, which charges a near-rock-bottom 40 cents per $1000 in property valuation (4th lowest in the state). Other parts of Charlestown and our surrounding towns have a multitude of fire districts. The rate Dunn’s Corner charges Westerly property owners in its District is even lower – 32 cents per $1000 – the lowest in the state.

By contrast to Dunn’s Corner/Charlestown is the state’s most expensive fire district, Coventry, where the District tax is $2.80 per $1000, a tax rate seven times higher. Coventry’s high rate is largely due to extraordinary financial mismanagement that threw the District into near-bankruptcy, causing suspended paychecks for its professional firefighters. The district stayed liquid by drastically jacking up the tax rate.

According to the RI Public Expenditure Council, the rate differences arise from factors such as the staffing mix (i.e., how many firefighters are volunteer versus how many are professional), the wealth of the community (i.e., the tax base) and the range of services. I’m not sure why there is an eight-cent difference between Dunn’s Corner’s rate for Charlestown compared to Westerly. Probably the tax base.

The wide range of Fire District tax rates just within our area is hard to understand. The Charlestown Fire District rate of 57 cents per $1000 is pretty close to Dunn’s Corner’s rate. But then there’s Shady Harbor, which at $2.23 per $1000 is fifth highest in the state. The neighboring Shelter Harbor Fire District is high at $1.04 per $1000, but less than half that of Shady Harbor. Similarly, the Quonochontaug Central Fire District charges 98 cents per $1000.

In addition to Dunn’s Corner and Shelter Harbor, Westerly has five other fire districts, each with its own tax rate: Bradford (72 cents), Misquamicut (70 cents), Westerly (55 cents), Weekapaug (50 cents) and Watch Hill (40 cents).

Conservative groups such as RIPEC, as well as the RI Statewide Coalition, question the logic of having so many separate fire districts. They argue that consolidating fire districts would save money and cut costs.  
That’s not surprising, since RISC’s (and CCA’s) founders and leaders are concentrated in the Shady Harbor, Shelter Harbor and Quonochontaug Fire Districts.

GoLocalProv asks “Does Lincoln need five fire chiefs?” The question could also be asked, “Does Westerly need seven fire chiefs?”

Mike Napolitano of the Albion (Cumberland) Fire District says, “In a town with six fire districts, if you were to consolidate, you wouldn’t need six fire chiefs. You wouldn’t need six tax collectors. You wouldn’t need six clerks.”

While the idea of consolidation for cost efficiency sounds great in theory, it is difficult to achieve if the composition of the firefighters differs within the districts negotiating a merger. Past efforts to try to consolidate districts teach that it’s hard if one district is all volunteer and another is all professional, especially if they are unionized, and another district has a mixed force.

Albion Fire District’s Napolitano concedes that the idea of merging districts goes nowhere without the support of the firefighters.

Residents may also find themselves torn between saving tax dollars versus potential reduced coverage arising from a merger. Would Shady Harbor, Shelter Harbor and Quonochontaug residents be willing to see fewer stations along with fewer districts so they can save on their property taxes?