MARB has no input on consolidation issue
Two concurrent events have brought up the word “consolidation” up again in the political dialogue of the city. With the oversight of the Municipal Accountability Review Board and the Charter Revision Commission, there has been some talk – again – about consolidating the city’s three fire districts into one. This is not something new, every so often over the last half century the issue has come up, only to be discarded.
The city’s three fire districts were formed separately and under different circumstances and legal provisions. In 2012, the Allingtown Fire District, which had several years of financial difficulties, was dissolved under statute by the electors in that district, and came under the auspices of the city. It was only because of the last charter revision that this was able to happen. Prior to that revision, which took place in the early 2000s, the city was legally bound to stay out of fire district affairs. A change in the charter allowed the city – if requested – to become involved.
There seems to be some idea afloat that the MARB could – by fiat – determine that the two remaining independent fire districts, the First Taxation District (Center) and the West Shore Fire District, can somehow be dissolved and put under city auspices. That cannot happen, nor can the Charter Revision Commission make it happen in some provision of the city charter.
Both the First Taxation District and West Shore are independent governmental organizations under the state’s “home rule” statutes. They have quasi-municipal status, set their own tax rates, and can, if necessary, bond. Each year at this time, the districts have their annual meetings wherein they elect members of the three-person commissions, and set budgets and mill rates. If there is a challenge to either the person(s) looking for commission seats or to the commissions’ proposed budgets, there is a referendum. Residents paying taxes in those districts go to the polls and vote in those instances.
Neither the MARB nor the Charter Revision Commission can dissolve the districts. Only the electors of those districts by specific vote can approve dissolution. So far, there has been very little political will to do so.
Allingtown’s absorption into the city has seen some buyer’s remorse by residents of the borough. In dissolving the district and going under the city, the voters have lost direct voices in the running of the department, which now answers to the City Council.
The question of whether the city’s taxpayers will see real savings by consolidation is one that has been bandied about for years. Plans for consolidation have been put forward, but the tedious work of dissolving the districts is one that few politicians and fewer residents seem to want to tackle at the present time.
Many like the independence of the districts, and see the benefits of direct taxpayer participation in their operation. They are unwilling to see that direct participation end.
Whether the departments eventually link up under independent or city auspices is an issue that is still to be resolved. But the idea that MARB can do it, or that charter revision can affect it, are wrong and misleading to those who don’t know the machinations that must take place.
West Haven might eventually move to consolidate its fire services, but that decision will be made by the voters, not a state review board or a charter revision panel.