Fire merger tops the news

Fire merger tops the news

CUMBERLAND - In a list of the top 10 news stories of 2013, this has to be the one we'll remember most.

It might even be the story of the decade here in town.

Cumberland's long-wished for plan for merging the town's four fire districts is finally in place.

The legislation's final chug to approval, from committees to Town Council to General Assembly, was a six-month grind during a year that saw the first Republicans in years challenging Mayor Daniel McKee a bit, while Lisa Beaulieu on the School Committee packed what seemed like five years of action into her first year at the helm.

Here's a look at the 10 news events that seem to have the greatest impact this year and perhaps the future.

1. Merge ahead

It all began with a 2010 citizen referendum, placed there by a mayor who bucked conventional wisdom that said only fire districts themselves could orchestrate a merger.

When 80 percent of residents agreed the Town Council should do the honors instead, Town Hall was off and running - howls from some fire district leaders notwithstanding.

Heading into 2013, a consultant had already studied the four departments and recommended closing a station and reducing manpower.

Countering that recommendation came a study commissioned by fire district members that raised red flags about speed and safety.

And overshadowing most discussion was the growing financial reality that residents of Cumberland Hill and North Cumberland districts were likely to see a substantial tax rate increase in their first unified district bill.

Town Council members readying a bill for the General Assembly sidestepped the nitty-gritty, instead leaving decisions like stations, equipment and manpower in the hands of a new Fire Committee to be elected in November of 2014.

Fine-tuning the legislation proved tricky, right up to the hot July night when the House members approved it, overriding the opposition of two of Cumberland's three legislators, Jim McLaughlin and Karen MacBeth.

The legislation calls for a townwide election in November to fill seven seats on the new Fire Committee - one from each of the five council districts and two at-large.

Candidates will pull nomination papers along with council and school board contenders in June and put together campaigns. Press releases, signs and mailings can be part of a process as they describe their goals for the first years of the united, but still independent, district.

And about those opposing reports about budget, manpower and safety issues? Look for the candidates to offer residents their opinions in the form of campaign platforms beginning next summer.

2. Pensioned off

And easily ranking number 2 on the list of 2013 events is the police contract resolution that, when combined with changes in the style of health care coverage, brings an end to the threat of high annual taxpayer contributions to a pension and OPEB - other post-employment benefit - funds that were once so far in arrears that in 2011 the state had named Cumberland to its bad-boy "significantly underfunded" list.

As the year ended, the union representing the town's police officers had signed off on the contract's main points but still questioning the terms of a coordination of benefits plan that requires spouses of officers to be covered by their own employers.

An actuarial report spelling out the precise savings was expected in December but is now due for the Jan. 15 Town Council meeting.

But as an example, current officers agreed to $3,000 on post employment health care deductible while new hires will get nothing after retirement. The OPEB liability dropped from a one-time high of $50 million to just under $16 million.

On a related note, 2014 will see all 150 or so town employees, except the School Department, move into the HSA (Health Savings Account) plans negotiated in 2013 with Emergency Services, Town Hall and executive staffs.

That's a savings of about $1 million over three years for taxpayers. For employees, HSA can be a roll of the dice. Annual exams and many routine tests are covered, while added medical care is an out-of-pocket expense that for many will be covered by a fund that employees and the town contribute to.

Police officers, still fine-tuning the terms of their contract, are expected to be enrolled by Feb. 1 and all others on Jan. 1.

3. An audit report to brag about

And that's just what McKee did recently, prompting a Providence Journal PolitiFact review that conceded it is "mostly true" that the town's credit rating is better than ever before.

Audit results might seem a bit arcane, but the implications for taxpayers' wallets are far-reaching.

This year saw Moody's Investors Service affirm Cumberland's A1 rating and remove the "negative outlook" that's clouded the town's financial picture in recent years.

Standard & Poor's Ratings Services, meanwhile, took the unusual step of notching the town up two full points, from A to AA-minus.

McKee admitted the news was "pretty fantastic, more than I expected."

Moody's ranking puts the town on the firm footing at the top of the "upper-medium" investment grade category, while S&P's AA assessment reflects "excellent financial security."

It was in January 2001, barely three weeks into McKee's first term, that Moody's cut the town's bond rating five steps, to Ba2 or "junk bond" status.

The investment services admonished the town to resolve two issues that town leaders say they have: Resolve the police OPEB and pension funds, as had happened by year's end, and collect on loans owed the operating fund from the water and sewer enterprise funds.

4. Passing the baton

And just as all this good news was coming together, McKee announced he'll try to parlay his leadership record into a Statehouse position as lieutenant governor.

His announcement means the mayoral seat is open in 2014, prompting several to publicly acknowledge they might be interested.

Town Council member and retired businessman Bill Murray of Staples Road is the only one to make the announcement official when he told an overflow crowd at the Cumberland House of Pizza in November.

Also not denying an interest so far are Jeff Mutter, a school board member who had been Town Council president; Scott Schmitt, a local businessman and Town Council freshman; Joe Silva, a professional musician; Brian Kelly, a former school board member.

Not interested now - but definitely in the future, he says - is Tony Silva, the former police chief who's currently heading up the state Division of Motor Vehicles.

Meanwhile, McKee, who's routinely looked beyond Cumberland-centric issues from his perch on Broad Street, has described the lieutenant governor's office as a place for pursuing statewide projects including economic development and education.

Always more comfortable in management rather than campaign mode, McKee's success on the state stage reaching out to the voters of East Bay and South County will be something to watch in 2014.

5. Trash talk

Little riles residents more than garbage pick-up hassles. And 2013 handed plenty to residents when the town's contractor, Coastal Recycling, proved as unreliable as its trucks.

Used recycling barrels from Woonsocket weren't as sparkling clean as promised, while some waited months to get one. And trash pick-up dates couldn't be counted on.

Economic realities stepped in this 2013 to spare residents when Coastal Recycling of North Smithfield was taken over by Waste Haulers of Smithfield.

In addition to collecting the company's customers, Waste Haulers assumed ownership of Coastal's full fleet of trucks and other property. Vehicles were repaired and repainted with the Waste Haulers logo.

Happy about the transfer was McKee, who championed Coastal over a competitor during the 2011 bid process but later admitted disappointment with Coastal's service.

"The rollout of the recycling bins was real sloppy, probably a reflection of the current state of business affairs," he said.

Early reports from the Rhode Island Resource Recovery were indicating that the bigger recycling barrels were fulfilling the goal of increased recycling diligence by residents.

6. Beaver business

Who would have guessed Cumberland's beavers could cause such a stir in 2013?

The critters' habitat came to light during one of the many discussions about upgrades to Diamond Hill Park.

Visitors to the park in April caught a Critter Control worker, hired by the town, making plans to capture and remove the beavers from the park's Sylvie's Brook.

When state wildlife officials indicated captured beavers must be destroyed not relocated, beavers found allies among citizens charmed by the complexity of the lodges and big beaver tooth marks in felled trees.

Outcry over destroying this wildlife resource led McKee to eventually issue a reprieve even while the industrious beavers continued their dam building that's already enlarged a pond area near the recreation fields.

That sideshow resolved, Town Council members turned their attention to Diamond Hill Park, where the entertainment community led the charge to re-do the stage area.

After a long debate, a master plan was adopted that would move the pond in front of the stage and replace it with lawn that will bring the audience up to the edge of the stage allowing more traditional interaction with performers.

As the year ended, however, the wetlands division of the state Department of Environmental Management had yet to approve moving the pond, and because of that Cumberland officials decided to give a low priority to the application for the grant needed to cover the work.

7. BVP gets approval nod

In the weird category, came the wholly unexpected resurrection of Cumberland's 19th-century coal mining industry when state Rep. Jim McLaughlin began warning - persistently - about fears of a cave-in on the site where the The Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy won permission to build a new charter elementary school.

BVP, which serves Cumberland, Lincoln, Central Falls and Pawtucket, continued to expand by two grades a year and next year will offer kindergarten to grade 9. The system will include two elementaries, and that's where the controversy started.

McKee gets credit for founding the Mayoral Academy in 2009 as well as for initiating the idea of selling Currier Park on Broad Street for economic development.

When the town offered the park on the open market, BVP matched the asking price of $249,000, the deal was sealed.

Councilors listened to four hours of testimony before voting to rezone the 1.3-acre park for commercial use and then to sell it to the New York-based Civic Builders. School leaders were challenged to address questions about traffic and parking before approval was granted.

Plans call for a $15 million investment on Broad Street, an area of town that Mayor Daniel McKee is starting to call an "education corridor."

The rendering shows a three-story, 40,000-square-foot elementary school that will house 400 students in kindergarten to grade 4.

This is Blackstone Valley Prep's second elementary school and will replace rental space at Our Lady of Fatima Church off High Street.

The first elementary school is in the former school first built by St. Patrick's Church.

Equal numbers of students come from Pawtucket, Central Falls, Lincoln and Cumberland and are chosen by lottery. The sending districts are responsible for paying their students' tuition.

The school system has state permission to eventually grow to 2,400 students, kindergarten to grade 12.

As the Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy expands, of course, the four sending school districts are responsible for per-child tuitions. Lincoln and Cumberland education leaders are vigorously complaining that despite the migration of students, fixed costs remain nearly constant.

Cumberland this year, for example, hired the same number of elementary school teachers while paying out an added $773,000, up from $1.54 million to $2.32 million, in tuitions to area charter schools, mostly BVP.

Replacing the lost Currier Park will be a couple of options for Valley Falls area children.

The school itself will open its playground after hours as well as install a regulation-size basketball court for the teenagers.

The town is hoping to create a multi-purpose field behind the B.F Norton School. And plans are underway to convert for recreation a former houselot off Mendon Road purchased from the Sousa family using federal funds following repeated flooding.

As the year ended, BVP leaders were just nine months away from opening their first high school but still without a location.

Hopes to lease the downtown Pawtucket visitor's center in the old Peerless Building had been rejected by the Pawtucket Redevelopment Agency.

8. Well off

Water Supt. Chris Champi, who's got a series of improvement projects in the works, is pinning his hopes for reduced overhead expenses on developing alternate sources of water.

Instead of purchasing water from Pawtucket or purifying Sneech Pond Reservoir water, he wants to pump clean, better tasting well water out of the Cumberland ground and close the Sneech Pond processing plant.

That would spare the 21,000 customers of the Cumberland Water Department from spending $2.5 million on state-mandated upgrades to the plant.

That dream got closer in 2013 with the arrival of drilling equipment to begin testing for supply and quality.

Test sites are Franklin Farm on Abbott Run Valley Road, Schofield Farm on Nate Whipple Highway, and Staples Road.

Volunteers with the Franklin Farm are begging officials to keep the historic farm intact and free from any well-related construction no matter how discrete Champi promises it would be.

Cumberland consumes an average two million gallons a day, an amount that can peak to seven million on hot summer days.

At $5 per 1,000 gallons, the Sneech Pond plant is the town's most expensive water source.

The Pawtucket Water Supply Board wholesale rate is $4.65 after including the electric pump bill.

Manville wells cost just $1 to $1.25 per 1,000 gallons, as does the single well at Abbott Run.

9. Turf's up

The Public Works and Recreation departments got a big break this summer when Town Council members approved a $1 million dollar investment in artificial turf at Tucker Field.

For years, natural grass has been a challenge on the high school's main field built on a swamp.

The field had been ripped up and reseeded several times in recent years, needed constant care, turned to mud during rainstorms, and attracted no small number of pooping geese.

The new level playing field for high school and town athletes is circled with a track and boasts a giant blue high school logo.

10. Park Place

Considering it was a $1.5 million investment of federal and state funds, the Manville Landing shouldn't be overlooked.

Ten years or more were invested in this effort at providing a scenic spot for picnics and launching small boats on the river just above the falls.

At the other end of town, the Heritage Park on the Central Falls line has been slowly upgraded with lights, speaker systems and signs into a new town gathering spot. Both the town's 4th of July concert and Santa Stroll were centered there in 2013.

Other big projects winning the OK this year but not yet completed: A garden center up on the corner of Pine Swamp and West Wrentham roads, a re-do of the Shell gas station at Chapel Four Corners, and Chuck Lombardi's auto body shop on Mendon Road.