I-Team: Fire Districts Not Subject To Proposition 2 1/2
BOSTON (CBS) – With a nearby airport, ferry terminal, and throngs of summer tourists, Hyannis is the busiest fire station on Cape Cod. It handles thousands of calls every year and it’s busting at the seams according to Chief Harold Brunelle.
“You have to walk sideways most of the time to get in and out of these hoses,” Brunelle said squeezing his way between the trucks in the garage.
There are few people in town who would argue the building is out of date. Gear hangs on clothing racks right next to the engines. The bunk-room is cramped and there is no separation for female firefighters. The station is almost 50 years old and it looks it.
Local realtor John Julius agrees the station needs sprucing up, but he has filed a lawsuit challenging the way Hyannis plans to pay for a new $20 million facility.
“We have a system that’s broken,” he said.
Julius is upset about the fire district system. The town of Barnstable is divided into five fire districts, which were set up back in the late 1800’s. Each district is independent of the town and collects its own taxes.
The part that makes Julius upset is that the districts are not subject to Proposition 2 1/2. That’s the ballot initiative passed by voters in the 1980’s that forbids cities and towns from raising their taxes more than 2.5 percent a year without voters going to the polls.
So in this case, in order to raise the money for the new Hyannis station, there’s no day-long override vote. Instead, residents gather at the high school where the measure could be passed by a simple show of hands.
There does need to be a two-thirds vote, but the quorum is only 15. That means as few as 15 people could decide whether to spend $20 million.
“It’s illegal and it’s unconstitutional,” Julius argued.
We asked Hyannis Fire District Commissioner Richard Gallagher if it’s fair that the district does not have to stay within the bounds of Prop 2 1/2.
“Well it’s a fair and good question,” he told us, sitting in the garage of the station. “But the fact of the matter is; it’s not within the law we work under.”
Barbara Anderson is the head of Citizens for Limited Taxation, the group that authored Proposition 2 1/2. She knew nothing of fire districts being allowed to operate outside the law until the I-Team told her.
“I cannot believe this is happening,” she said. “This is clearly not what we intended and we can prove it because it’s not what we wrote in the law,” she added.
There are a handful of towns with similar districts scattered across Massachusetts; most are tiny towns in the western part of the state. The community of Wareham also has two districts.
To give you an idea of how this translates for taxpayers. Compare the town of Plymouth which has seven fire stations and a budget of $9 million dollars. Hyannis has just one fire station and a budget of over $10 million.
Chief Brunelle said the budget is higher because in Barnstable, the districts are responsible for more.
“We have to account for everything we do. Many cities and towns don’t account for retirement costs, insurance costs for personnel, it’s a big expense,” he said. However, those expenses are also not subject to the taxing limits of Prop 2 1/2.
“Sometimes we may not be under ‘quote, unquote’ Prop 2 1/2,” he said. “But we don’t go off the deep end either.”
Both John Julius and Barbara Anderson say they have no legal right to go over at all. Ultimately, it will be up to a judge.
“I think the judge should tell them that this has been wrong. They simply interpreted this incorrectly and no, they can’t do it,” Anderson said.
The vote on the new fire station is Wednesday, March 5th at 7 p.m. at Barnstable High School.
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