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Beaver Falls Fire District fears for its future as budget slashed

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BEAVER FALLS — Given 17 days to create a proposed budget after a property reassessment forced the district to reduce its spending by 60 percent, Beaver Falls Fire District commissioners were left scrambling last month.

“I just about hit the floor,” Board of Commissioners Vice Chairman Robert R. Williams said of his reaction upon learning that Lakeside Beaver Falls LLC had its tax assessment reduced from $85.5 million to approximately $5 million for its newly purchased three parcels.

After several hours-long meetings, the team of five commissioners put together what commissioner Ricky D. Hunkins called “a crisis budget” to get the department through 2014. It called for an operating budget of $64,825, a far cry from this year’s $109,750. The district will impose a tax levy of $31,000 and take the balance from reserve funds.

Commissioners now are trying to determine what the future holds, and whether there is a future for the department at all.

Though they expect to consult an attorney and meet with residents, commissioners see only three possible options: Merging with another department, dissolving the district, or keeping the district intact and contracting for fire protection with another department.

Mr. Williams acknowledged he was not sure of the state’s requirements for any of these options or whether any were even feasible.

“We’re really in the research stage,” Mr. Hunkins said. Once the final budget is approved, the district will explore options, he said.

Mr. Williams expressed his frustration over the short notice from the town of Croghan Board of Assessment Review, after discovering that the reduced assessment had been approved following grievance day May 28, but his board was not informed until Sept. 7.

“We’re all neighbors, but we didn’t get courtesy or respect,” Mr. Williams told Croghan Town Council members at their meeting Monday evening.

He also questioned the ability of the Board of Assessment Review to make decisions about the property. “Do they have knowledge to do an industrial assessment?” he asked.

In response, Town Supervisor Andrew A. Lehman said, “We’ve been running blind, too.”

He said the owners of the property could have sold off the materials, leaving more than 100 people without jobs.

The new lowered assessment is five times the $1 million Lakeside Beaver Falls paid for the property, he said.

“There’s a million in scrap,” Mr. Lehman said the owners informed him.

Lakeside Beaver Falls has renegotiated the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement, settling on an $82,000 payment the first three years with a 2 percent increase the remaining years of the 10-year agreement.

Lewis County, the Beaver River Central School District and the town of Croghan receive taxes from the PILOT. Such agreements have no impact on fire districts.

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