Fire consolidation plan going to Statehouse for approval

Fire consolidation plan going to Statehouse for approval

CUMBERLAND - The General Assembly's legal right to summarily dissolve Cumberland's four fire districts remained a question for some at mid-week as the town's officials awaited the final draft of the legislation that proponents say will unify this town's firefighting services.

State Rep. Karen MacBeth of Cumberland, who expressed hesitation late last week over the emerging plan, told The Breeze Monday she's seeking the advice of a lawyer.

But once convinced it's legal, she said, she'll be on board with consolidation legislation even though she's hearing some residents express concerns about future fire tax bills.

"I will respect the 2010 ballot question and act on the wishes of the voters," she said, referencing the town's 80 percent support to merge the fire departments.

She described a cooperative legislative delegation working together to fine-tune a bill by state Sen. Ryan Pearson that will detail how the four-station system will be governed by an interim panel of seven elected members in September followed by the regularly elected seven members beginning in November of 2014.

Consolidation action, literally decades in coming, took a huge step last Wednesday, May 1, with the Town Council's history-making resolution supported by five of seven councilors.

Brushing aside the work of his own subcommittee that was headed by Councilor Scott Schmitt, Council President James Higgins made speedy work of moving the discussion out of Town Hall and down to the Statehouse. He issued the resolution last Friday, amended it over the weekend and saw it voted on Wednesday.

Credit seems to go to freshman Sen. Pearson, who laid out a path to General Assembly approval, Mayor Daniel McKee for getting the question before voters in November 2010, and President Higgins, who first made it clear that he wrote the resolution and then challenged every argument raised against it Wednesday.

Councilors Schmitt and Arthur Lambi were the two who opposed last Wednesday's resolution while predicting increased tax bills for half of the town.

At mid-week, the two were waiting to review the final bill, although Lambi was describing himself as "bewildered" by the shift in direction that set aside the subcommittee's work.

"If no plan was needed, and no voter approval required, then why didn't the Town Council do this years ago?" he questioned later.

The explanation given last week for why the simplified legislation is suddenly the way to go was this: What the General Assembly did in authorizing district charters 150 years ago, the General Assembly can undo in 2013.

The legislation creating the single fire district will be as generalized as the one that created the current districts, said Town Solicitor Thomas Hefner, who used to draft laws for the General Assembly.

Higgins, also a lawyer, is currently in that role at the Statehouse.

Tuesday, McKee, while acknowledging that General Assembly approval was still needed, was close to celebrating.

"I like the idea of where we are now. This has been a 20-year project and it's done."

"The voters are going to get to vote in their own people every two years. I'm not sure you could have asked for more than that."

McKee acknowledged the work of the many who contributed to the effort and suggested that while some are "feeling offended" that their work isn't reflected in the pending legislation, "my feeling is that all the work was worth it and we wouldn't be where we are if it wasn't done."

He suggested that plans developed by the fire districts and Schmitt's committee, for example, can be used as platforms in the upcoming elections for an interim board.

"If people are slighted, they need to remember it was never about them, it was the taxpayers."

McKee said he expects a robust election season governed like any election. A late September vote, perhaps Sept. 24, was being discussed with the state Board of Elections, he said. Dates for filing nomination papers will be announced.

As for whom he supports, McKee says he'll get behind the candidates whose platform most closely resemble the recommendations of the Jacobs consulting report, the same report that Schmitt's subcommittee used in its aborted plan.

The actual legislation that springs from the council resolution had been expected this week, but Pearson said Tuesday that because of the many offering input - including fire chiefs and current boards of commissioners - to expect it next week.

(The Breeze will post the bill on its website, www.valleybreeze.com , as soon as it's available.)

Needed in Pearson's bill are details like the process for setting future budgets or language to assure current firefighters aren't forced to reapply for their jobs.

Fire district bills like this have been referred to House Municipal Government and Senate Finance committees this year, said Pearson, who sits on Senate Finance.

According to the council resolution, the four district boards of trustees/commissioners/wardens in Valley Falls, Cumberland, North Cumberland and Cumberland Hill would be dismissed and replaced by an interim board elected townwide in September of 2013.

Budgets adopted at annual meetings this June - except Cumberland Hill's which is in November - would remain in place for the year.

One member would represent each of the five Town Council districts and two would be at-large.

To this first board would fall the challenge of a unified budget and tax rate, a unified union contract, decisions about fire houses and equipment, insurance and much more.

In November of 2014, the commissioners would be required to stand for re-election for a two-year term and elections would follow every two years.

Once established, the elected board would set its own budget and do its own taxing, with the assistance of Town Hall personnel. There would be no more fire district annual meetings, which Higgins, during a heated moment Wednesday, described as "controlled and manipulated."

Schmitt's committee had recommended a similar governance model, but wanted a $6.1 million maximum budget, $1.72 tax rate, and a limit of 46 firefighters.

Higgins and others countered in recent weeks that the General Assembly can't set fire rates in its legislation.

Without those guidelines, Schmitt predicted 15 percent to 20 percent tax increases for the northern half of the town and complained that his committee's plan was never aired before the entire committee.

Higgins questioned, "Did you think you had enough votes to get it passed?"

Schmitt replied, "You told me I didn't."

Higgins told The Breeze later that he hadn't polled the councilors but had a "sense" of councilors' attitudes in conversations he'd overheard. He noted that he worried about publicly embarrassing Schmitt and Lambi when the majority voted against their plan.

And Lambi, who served on the subcommittee and in 2009 led a tax revolt against the North Cumberland Fire District, said voters may overwhelmingly support consolidation, "but if you ask them why, everyone knows the answer: They expect their taxes to go down."

Tax rate predictions Wednesday night ranged the low of $1.80 per thousand dollar valuation by Higgins to a high of $2 by Schmitt. North Cumberland residents currently pay $1.68.

In addition to tax rate questions, concerns were raised about the legality of summarily dismissing the elected leaders of the local boards.

Schmitt said the fire district board members were being removed "without cause and without a vote. I'm not a lawyer but this doesn't pass the smell test. It violates what I consider the most democratic principal of a free society."

One of those leaders, Ronald Champagne of Cumberland Hill, was silent during the debate and told The Breeze later he's not sure what his response will be. But he called it "a railroad job."

North Cumberland's district chairman, Philip Koutsogiane, argued against removing the decision from district voters and decried the loss of research and planning done by a committee of leaders from all four districts.

"You are taking the people out of the picture," he said.

He described work that's been underway since November and said the process is stopping before their presentation.

"Now is time to let this work be done by the fire commission, putting numbers together and presenting it to the people who will say yes or no. You're taking that away from them.

"I am for consolidation, but I want it done with better methodology."

Higgins replied, "But you will never get it done. You've been trying to do it for three years.

Jim Scullin of the Valley Falls District said, "Granted, I will admit the districts have done a poor job getting this done, but just to throw the taxpayers under the bus . . . the taxpayers will have no say in this whole thing."

And chided citizen Bill Perry, "Since 1950 we've been looking for consolidation and many people spent many hours of work, spent lots of money paying people to come up with plans, and now the best we can get is President Higgins saying, 'Here's what I'm going to do, give me one fire district and we'll hope the best?'"

Statehouse email addresses are: MacBeth: rep-macbeth@rilin.state.ri.us ; Mia Ackerman: rep-ackerman@rilin.state.ri.us ; James McLauglin: rep-mcLaughlin@rilin.state.ri.us .

Reach Pearson at sen-pearson@rilin.state.ri.us and Sen. Roger Picard at sen-picard@rilin.state.ri.us