Fire districts — special geographical areas that have the power to levy local property taxes to support firefighting services — are coming under increased scrutiny due to new legislation and a state Supreme Court decision. The districts have operated well below the radar in many New Jersey communities, but statewide they spent $240 million from local tax levies last year.
The court issued an opinion Monday that the more than 180 fire districts are an “instrumentality of a political subdivision” and thus subject to the full terms of New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act, which requires public disclosure of basic documents like budgets and payroll.
That opinion was issued the same day Gov. Chris Christie signed into law a bill that will allow fire districts to hold their elections each year in November instead of late February. Up until now that’s when they’ve been required to be held, even though they typically draw very low voter turnout.
The high court
The Supreme Court case that was decided yesterday pitted plaintiff Robert A. Verry against the Franklin Fire District No. 1 in the Somerset County municipality. Verry had submitted a public-records request in February 2013 for the constitution and bylaws of the Millstone Valley Fire Department, which operates within the district. The district denied his request, saying it does not maintain such documents for member fire companies.
Verry appealed to the state Government Records Council, empowered to hear public-records denials, and the GRC ordered the documents released. Additional appeals led the case to the Supreme Court. Millstone Valley is subject to the Open Public Records Act because it is a member of the Franklin Fire District, which is indisputably a public agency that must provide documents requested by the public, the Supreme Court ruled 5-2.
The high court ruling was viewed largely as a split decision for public-records access since the justices determined the fire company also has to provide the public with certain documents, but is not itself a public entity subject to the records law.
“For OPRA disclosure-requirement purposes, as an instrumentality of a political subdivision, a fire district clearly meets the definition of public agency under the second sentence of OPRA’s definition … and must respond to requests made under the statute,” wrote Justice Jaynee LaVecchia for the majority.
The new law
While not every community maintains a fire district, some have more than one within their borders. In all, there are 183 fire districts across the state that have the authority to levy a local fire tax, according to an analysis prepared by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services.
The fire districts spent a combined $240 million in local property-tax revenue in 2016, according to the OLS, and they helped support 8,000 firefighters both paid and volunteer across the state, according to a report released by the Office of the State Comptroller in 2014.
The new law is intended to help generate more interest and voter participation in fire-district elections, and the change is something Christie has long called for as part of a broader initiative to curb New Jersey’s high property-tax bills. It will also allow the fire districts that move their elections to November to forgo holding a referendum on their annual budget if they can limit property-tax increases to 2 percent or less. The law will take effect beginning in 2019, and legislative sponsors have predicted it could also save taxpayers additional money by not forcing local officials to hold multiple elections in one year.
Residents of communities like Franklin that maintain fire districts have the right under state law to elect members of five-person fire-district commissions. They can also vote on the district’s annual spending plans, with fire-district elections by law held each year on the third Saturday in February.
Low voter turnout
But the 2014 state comptroller’s report found that turnout for elections held in three fire districts that were closely scrutinized by the agency ranged from less than 1 percent to 1.6 percent. The report also made a series of recommendations, including moving the fire-district elections to November to “potentially increase voter turnout and reduce costs.”
The new law enacted yesterday by Christie will allow the fire commissioners to choose to move their annual elections from April to November by adopting a resolution. Those that choose to do so will also not be required to hold the public referendum on their annual budget if the spending plan doesn’t call for the local property tax levy — the amount that is drawn directly from property owners in the fire district — to increase by more than 2 percent.
In 2010, Christie signed legislation adopting a 2 percent cap on local property tax-levy increases as part of a broader “toolkit” initiative aimed at controlling local property taxes that at the time were rising by roughly 7 percent annually. That cap generally can only be exceeded by a local government if voters give their approval.
Christie’s toolkit also pressed lawmakers to pass legislation moving local school-district elections and the fire-district elections to November. A bill moving school district elections was enacted in 2012, and most of the more than 500 districts across the state now hold their elections in the fall.