September 5, 2008
MUNICIPAL FIRE AUTHORITIES
By: John Rappa, Principal Analyst
You asked if there are any examples of quasi-public agencies that provide fire services. You also wanted to know if Connecticut's special taxing districts can enter into interlocal agreements with other districts and municipalities.
We could find no quasi-public agencies that provide fire protection, but New York fire districts exhibit some of the fiscal characteristics of these agencies. Fire protection is usually provided by municipal or county fire departments or independent fire districts operating within designated areas.
Quasi-public agencies are created by states or municipalities to address a specific need, such as affordable housing or economic development. These agencies operate independently of the government that created them and answer instead to a governing board or commission. They do not levy taxes but charge rents or sell revenue-backed bonds.
Fire districts and quasi-public agencies manage their own finances, but Connecticut's fire districts must submit their annual budgets to the district voters for approval. New York's districts do not, a factor that makes them similar to quasi-public agencies. But they are subject to many more fiscal controls than Connecticut's.
Connecticut law allows fire and other special taxing districts to enter into interlocal agreements with other districts or municipalities to provide a wide range of services, including fire prevention and fire fighting (CGS §§ 7-339a—7-339l). The law specifies the requirements for entering into these agreements, which Attachment 1 (Summary of PA 95-308) describes.
We could find no examples of a quasi-public agency providing fire protection even though the Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (Vance, 2008) listed them among the different types of organizations that could provide this service. The Handbook describes municipal and county fire departments, which are usually formed under a local charter or ordinance, and fire districts and fire protection districts, which are usually formed under a special act or state statutes. Both types rely on property taxes to fund their operations.
Quasi-public agencies are also created by law to fulfill a public purpose, but rely on other types of revenues, such as user fees. For example, public housing authorities (PHAs) provide decent, safe, and affordable housing to people who cannot afford private market rents. They do this by charging affordable rents and covering the difference with federal and state funds. Water pollution control authorities (WPCAs) provide water and sewer service by charging their customers fees for it.
The ability to raise and control their own revenues is one of several characteristics that set quasi-public agencies apart from other public agencies. Quasi-public agencies are often governed by an independent board or commission that approves the agency's budget, plans, and operating procedures. The latter include procurement and personnel practices that are different than those governing municipal agencies and employees.
Creating a fire district is one way to organize and deliver fire protection services. As an organizational form, fire districts share some of the characteristics of quasi-public agencies, such as WPCAs. Like WPCAs, fire districts provide a service independent of the municipality to the residents of a specific area. And they do so by preparing their own budgets and raising their own revenues.
But there are significant differences. Fire districts commissioners are usually elected by the district voters whereas quasi-public agency board members are appointed by elected officials. Connecticut's fire districts are also different that quasi-public agencies because the districts must submit their annual budgets to the district voters for approval. In that respect, the districts' fiscal powers are closer to municipalities with a town meeting form of government.
On the other hand, the fiscal powers of New York's fire districts are closer to municipalities with a mayor-council form of government. The commissioners overseeing these districts must hold only a public hearing on proposed annual budgets. But the districts are subject to stricter fiscal controls than Connecticut's.
For example, New York law caps the amount a district can annually spend at $2,000 plus an adjustment based on the value of taxable property that exceeds $1 million (N.Y. Town Law § 176 (16)). It also specifies how and when they must prepare and approve their budgets. As noted above, commissioners can approve proposed budgets without voter approval, but the law also prohibits them from adding or increasing the capital reserves after the mandatory public hearing (N.Y. Town Law § 181).
Despite these restrictions, the law provides a way to override them. Commissioners or voters can approve spending for specified purposes at general or special elections called for that purpose. They can do this to purchase fire trucks or alarm systems, make capital improvements, and permanently override the statutory spending limit (N.Y. Town Law § 179).