Merge ahead

Merge ahead

Fire consolidation bill sails through House, 61-4, despite pleas from MacBeth, McLaughlin for amendments

CUMBERLAND - Acting on a Senate bill Monday night, members of the House of Representatives ignored pleas for amendments by two of the town's four delegates and voted 61 to 4 to merge Cumberland's four fire districts.

Senate Bill 958A, the same bill that won Senate approval a week earlier, sets into motion an interim planning process followed by a November 2014 townwide vote for the first members of the unified Cumberland Fire District Committee.

It completes an effort begun in November of 2010 when local voters overwhelmingly supported the concept of merging the four fire districts, an idea that's been talked about and attempted for at least two decades.

The bill found decisive approval on a muggy, Monday evening despite pleas by Reps. Karen MacBeth and Jim McLaughlin to amend some lines.

Silent but voting for the amendments, too, was Rep. Robert Phillips whose Woonsocket district extends into northern Cumberland.

The only Cumberland representative expressing opposition to the language adjustments was Rep. Mia Ackerman.

Come November 2014, Cumberland's four fire districts will dissolve and a single, independent governing body takes over.

By that date, a single chief will likely have been selected and many details, like a single firefighter contract and which apparatus to assign to each station, should be well in hand.

As the bill forwarded Monday around 9:30 p.m., MacBeth stood up with a fistful of amendments, some 16, she said, but gave up after failing to win more than a few votes on each the first five or so.

MacBeth chastised members for supporting a bill that 50 percent of the town's delegation wanted to amend, calling it "very dangerous territory."

But Municipal Government Chairman John DeSimone, whose committee heard the bill, told the House the bill reflects the wishes of the Town Council, the fire district boards and unionized firefighters.

Ackerman underscored his comments, telling members that months of planning went into the bill that includes compromises on all side. "I am concerned that any last minute changes could cause this plan to fall apart."

Scuttled, too, even before it reached the floor, was McLaughlin's House bill 6311, signed by all four Cumberland reps last Friday, that corrected the issues MacBeth and McLaughlin were raising as amendments, she told the House. Instead, just the Senate bill, by Sen. Ryan Pearson, found its way to the House floor.

An agitated McLaughlin told the House he was disappointed not see his bill introduced. Last Friday, he said, "We had an agreement with all four reps and Sen. Pearson," he said. "But guess what? Sen. Pearson's bill is here, so we bypassed the House for Sen. Pearson's. What's that all about? Everything was resolved up until an hour ago and I don't think it's fair. This bill, they're trying to jam down your throats."

McLaughlin declared his strong support for MacBeth. "At first I thought Rep. MacBeth was trying to sabotage the bill, but no, she brought forth some good amendments."

Cumberland's was the last bill on the eve of adjournment and MacBeth's proposed changes seemed to try the patience of some. At one point, MacBeth turned on Rep. Joseph Trillo - one of the House's most talkative members - to suggest, "If you don't like it, leave. I'm sticking up for my district."

MacBeth's words rang tough, but it was soon after that she, in a trembling voice, conceded none of her changes would be adopted and took her seat.

Among MacBeth's amendments were language changes such as a call to:

* Specify the number who will serve on the transitional planning team and that they must represent each fire district.

* Change the method for filling vacancies on the permanent fire committee to remove that power from the Town Council.

* Add language to ensure that taxes collected for the district by Town Hall go immediately to the district rather than being deposited for a while with town funds earning interest for the town.

* Add the so-called "super-lien" power to the district, as Cumberland Hill got several years ago, to put the fire district ahead of mortgage holders when collecting old taxes.

MacBeth said she was also attempting to change the language about capping the annual levy increase

Predictions vary widely, but residents of the districts of Cumberland Hill and North Cumberland are likely to see double-digit percent increases to their fire taxes, various leaders have been indicating.

In the end, McLaughlin changed his final nay vote on the overall bill to a yea, explaining, "I'm voting in the affirmative because I will not kill this merger."