LACONIA — With Belknap County likely to strike the annual appropriation for its 11 municipalities belonging to the Lakes Region Mutual Fire Aid Association (LRMFAA) from its 2014 budget, the cost of membership would rise for some and fall for others while Tilton and Northfield, who share a fire district, could fund themselves haggling over the tab.
The LRMFAA manages emergency communications, coordinates mutual assistance and provides training programs for 36 municipal fire departments operating across 1,500 square miles in all or part of half the state's 10 counties. The organization originated in 1951 with a handful of towns in Belknap County, but has never been an agency of county government., although all 11 of its municipalities belong to the LRMFAA.
The LRFMAA is governed by a board of directors composed of the fire chiefs from the member municipalities, four of whom are elected to an executive committee. The executive committee prepares and adopts an annual budget then distributes the cost among the member municipalities.
The municipalities are assessed by a formula consisting of the sum of three factors. A fixed charge, representing 36 equal shares of one-tenth of the total budget, accounts for 10 percent of the assessment. A valuation factor, calculated by dividing 40 percent of the budget by the total assessed property value of 36 municipalities and multiplying the evaluation of each municipality by the result, represents 40 percent of the assessment. The remaining 50 percent of the assessment is based on a population factor, calculated by dividing half the budget by the aggregate population of all 36 municipalities and multiplying the population of each municipality by the result.
The 25 municipalities in Carroll, Grafton, Merrimack and Strafford counties are billed directly by the LRMFAA in accordance with the formula. However, Laconia and the 10 towns of Belknap County have long been treated differently. They are not being billed directly by LRMFAA. Instead, their total share of its budget is included in the county budget, apportioned among them based solely on their share of the total assessed property valuation of the county and paid through the county property tax.
In other words, the county acts only as a collection agency.
Although severing the relationship between the county and LRMFAA has arisen in the past, the issue came to a head this year when Meredith and Center Harbor asked to be billed directly. County Administrator Debra Shackett explained that if any municipality in the county is billed directly, all must be billed directly, since whatever amount is included in the county budget would be incorporated in the county tax rate levied on all 11 municipalities. "The towns that opted to be billed directly," she said, "would be billed twice, once by the LRMFA and once by the county. "
If the LRMFAA's budget is stripped from the county budget and the 11 municipalities are billed directly, they would pay the same total amount, but the shares would be distributed differently.
Based on the LRMFAA's requested budget, this year the share of the 11 municipalities was $554,037, distributed as follws: Alton $81,048, Barnstead $27,350, Belmont $34,381, Center Harbor $22,457, Gilford $88,631, Gilmanton $25,680, Laconia $106,731, Meredith $100,545, New Hampton $17,528, Sanbornton $22,072 and Tilton $27,614.
Billed directly, according to the formula applied by the LRMFAA, four towns — all with extensive waterfront —would have paid less while Laconia and six towns would have paid more. The assessment to Alton would have been reduced by $18,922, to Center Harbor by $4,721, to Gilford by $14,326 and to Meredith by $25,445.
On the other hand, the assessment to Laconia would have risen by $17,606, to Barnstead by $9,206, to Belmont by $18,290, to Gilmanton by $6,237, to New Hampton by $3,372, to Sanbornton by $4,527 and to Tilton by $4,176.
The prospect of direct billing by the LRMFAA has breathed fresh life into a lingering issue between Tilton and Northfield, which share a common fire district. While Tilton has been billed through Belknap County, Northfield, which is in Merrimack County, has been billed directly.
However, Glenn Smith, Northfield Town Administrator, said that the Board of Selectmen have consistently taken the position that the LRMFAA should bill the Tilton-Northfield Fire District, not the two towns. They note that the fire district, established in 1945, is a distinct entity, governed by an elected commission and annual meeting. The district, not the towns, he said, provides fire protection and emergency services. Smith described the different methods of billing the two towns as "an impediment to billing the district."
Pat Clark, who chairs the Tilton-Northfield First District Commission, agreed that the LRMFAA should bill the district, not the towns and acknowledged that removing the LRMFAA from the county budget presented an opportunity to address the issue.
The district, he said, is responsible for providing fire protection, ambulance service and a water supply to both towns.
Currently, Tilton bears 63-percent of the district's annual budget and Northfield 37-perecent. Clark conceded that if LRMFAA billed the district directly, Tilton's share of the district's budget would rise, estimating the increase would fall between $9,000 and $10,000. He noted that if billed separately, each town would pay a fixed charge, but the district would pay only once.
"It is a question of dollars and cents," he said, anticipating that billing the district would encounter resistance from Tilton. But, he said "put in context it is not a lot of money and it might help in mending fences between the two communities."
Clark said that since the two towns voted to join the LRMFAA, warrant articles in the both as well as a vote of the fire district would be required to affect the transition, which probably could not take place before 2015.