‘Creative, innovative’ candidates suggested for first Fire Committee

‘Creative, innovative’ candidates suggested for first Fire Committee

CUMBERLAND – It’s time now to start the process of electing this town’s first Cumberland Fire Committee to govern a consolidated, but still independent, fire district.
If you live in Cumberland then you’re eligible to run for one of the seven seats.

Each of the five districts will get one member and two will be at-large, elected by the entire town. Districts coincide with those used for the Town Council and School Committee members.

Mayor Daniel McKee, who started the consolidation drive back in 2010, is calling for “creative, innovative” people to step up for a chance to be the first members of this board that will lay the foundation for fire service protection in coming years.

He suggests both those with a background in fire protection and citizens with financial and management skills should consider running.

“You know I like a clean sheet of paper. This is an opportunity to take a clean sheet of paper and create a new governance model for Cumberland.”

McKee suggested the job “offers a lot of satisfaction” to those who are elected. From allocating equipment and fire stations to firefighter contracts, choosing a chief and working out future tax rates, the board will have a busy year, he said.

“I think it’s set up very well with a very good transition strategy,” he said of the legislation that creates it.

The Fire Committee was created by the General Assembly on June 25, 2013 when members adopted S-0958A, introduced by Sens. Ryan Pearson and Roger Picard, following weeks of debate among Cumberland’s delegates to the House of Representatives. The bill followed a 2010 referendum on Cumberland’s ballot that overwhelmingly supported the concept of a single fire district, along with a consultant study presented to the Town Council, and lengthy local debate over budget and tax rate issues. In the end, all in Cumberland’s delegation got behind the bill except Rep. Karen MacBeth.

Candidates have a strict schedule to meet, beginning with next week’s declaration period, Monday, June 23 to Wednesday, June 25.

The Board of Canvassers clerk in Town Hall, Maria Lage, says declaration papers may be filed between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. on June 23 and 24 and from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on June 25.

Fifty signatures on nomination papers will then be required. Pick up paperwork on July 1 and return them by July 11, she says. District candidates must get eligible residents of the district only and at-large may seek them out townwide.

As of this week, only former Town Council member Bruce Lemois, who was part of the successful effort to merge the Ashton and Berkeley districts, had officially announced his intention to run. Lemois currently heads the Town Democratic Committee.

Lage said newcomers to politics may not know that she’s got a map of the five council districts and list of streets for all candidates.

And she warned they must file regular campaign finance reports with the Rhode Island Board of Elections.

Sen. Pearson, who championed the consolidation bill, says he patterned the Fire Committee structure on the School Committee – from the name, Fire Committee, rather than commission, to having seven, non-partisan members who run in November. There’s no runoff provided no matter how many declare.

The first seven will take the reins of not only merged staffs and equipment, but a budget based on whatever taxpayers provide at their last annual meetings this month.

North Cumberland Fire Department trustees on Monday, with taxpayers’ support, whittled the final tax bills down to $1.28 a thousand but is using surplus fund to put enough in the pot to fund a regular entire year, including such things as 12 months of part-time pay for a clerk or the $85,000 needed to cover the controversial hydrant bill from the Water Department.

The other three districts make budget decisions to fund the consolidated committee when each meets during the last week of June, including Cumberland Hill, which traditionally has met in November. The Fire Committee takes over as soon as the Nov. 4 election is certified, according to the legislation that creates it.

McKee said he’s wary of fire districts, like North Cumberland’s, choosing to “artificially” lower tax rates by injecting surplus funds into the operating budget rather than passing the surplus funds on to the new districts.

And, commenting on the fact that the legislation makes no requirement that taxpayers fund a year’s worth of spending, McKee said, “Boards should be passing a legitimate budget and should be putting in legitimate funds for all this to work. Everyone needs to pay their fair share,” he said.