Lonsdale, Saylesville Fire bill stops dead in its tracks

Lonsdale, Saylesville Fire bill stops dead in its tracks

Pensions at risk after ‘personal grievances’ put halt to fire service takeover

LINCOLN – “Personal grievances” by one former Lonsdale Fire District firefighter stood in the way of a legislation to unite two fire districts that would have allowed for residents of Lonsdale to pay lower taxes, for the Saylesville district to see an increase in revenue, and for the last laid-off Lonsdale firefighter to secure a job.

Instead, with the General Assembly adjourned, the options for Lonsdale’s fire district include filing for bankruptcy – a move that could cause former district employees to lose their pension, said Mike Babbitt, treasurer and chairman of the Lonsdale Fire board. “It just seems very selfish that for one situation, a whole system falls down,” Babbitt said.

Bill H 8179 saw no action by the House or Senate last Friday, after town officials explained that pressure from both the local Lincoln and state unions demanded changes to the legislature that would have allowed for residents to vote for the surrender of Lonsdale’s charter, and a takeover by the Saylesville Fire District. A former Lonsdale employee sought union support, officials said.

It’s a move the town administrator said is a “bad call on the General Assembly’s part to block something this important for all the people of Lonsdale.”

Babbitt, who has been working on a solution for the district without pay since April 2015 when he joined the board, said he wouldn’t go into detail about which former Lonsdale employees requested changes to the bill, but explained there was a push for “seniority” rights in the hiring process in Saylesville.

Babbitt said “it’s unfair for us to tell them (Saylesville Fire) how to do their business when we couldn’t even conduct our own.”

Since Saylesville has been covering Lonsdale fire services since June of last year, when Lonsdale financially collapsed and the station closed, Saylesville recognized a need to hire more firefighters and had intentions to do so. The plan was to hire one employee from Saylesville, and another from Lonsdale, putting all the laid-off men from Lonsdale Fire back to work.

The bill was introduced by Reps. Jeremiah O’Grady and Mia Ackerman, and was what Babbitt called the “best situation for everybody.” With this plan,” he said, “people were unemployed, people were worried about their families and their future – (but) we got everybody back.”

O’Grady told The Breeze he was “stunned” when leaving the session without seeing any progress on the bill, which he described as a “sensible way forward that would work.” He noted that this situation in Lincoln was not a merger, but a healthy fire district that was willing to “assume responsibility” for a failed fire district.

Both the Saylesville and Lonsdale Fire boards were in favor of this step, and Saylesville had agreed to take on all liabilities and assets of the financially shuttered Lonsdale Fire District – including pensions of retired and vested workers, Almond explained. Saylesville has been covering fire services for Lonsdale since June of last year.

All but one of the former Lonsdale Fire employees had been hired full-time in Rhode Island, and Babbitt said the Lonsdale Fire District board members had the same priorities since the start – they wanted to get each of the laid-off men back to work.

Now, that individual is still without a full-time job, and isn’t working in the public safety field, Babbitt explained. The Rhode Island General Assembly won’t meet again until January 2017, and Almond explained that even if progress was made in January, it would be well into spring 2017 before any bill is passed.

A statement from Speaker Nicholas Mattiello to The Breeze read that “Representative O’Grady was a strong advocate on behalf of his legislation. Unfortunately, we couldn’t reach consensus on a very long final night of the session. I have made a commitment to Representative O’Grady that this will be one of the very first bills we consider next year.”

“It basically leaves the districts in turmoil,” Almond told The Breeze, explaining that Lincoln is still dealing with one closed fire station and another fire department taking on another district’s fire services for additional payments.

As stated by Babbitt and each member of the Lonsdale Fire board for the past several months, the station could not re-open, as it’s been determined financially insolvent. Lonsdale, which is already the highest taxed district in Lincoln, would need a 20 percent tax increase to pay Lonsdale firefighters, fund their pensions and benefits and pay other station expenses. This was all discussed by board members and residents at the Lonsdale Fire meeting back in January 2016.

“You can’t keep meeting as a board and taxing people for a closed fire station,” Almond said, and pointed out that the board members of Lonsdale have the right to walk away from the situation after putting in over a year of unpaid time and effort in finding a solution. Lonsdale taxpayers’ money has been going to general station expense bills and Saylesville for fire service coverage.

Babbitt told The Breeze “I am not interested in doing this for another 16 months. I got in this because I knew there was a problem, and I said I would help and try to resolve it, I worked very hard to do that.” The treasurer and chairman said he and the rest of the Lonsdale board members are continuing to meet with Saylesville members and the town administrator to come up with some type of plan, but said options are limited at this point.

At Wednesday night’s Lonsdale Fire meeting, residents were expected to vote on fire service coverage fees from Saylesville once more – payments Saylesville Chief Robert Fisher said must increase. The Saylesville Fire Department was charging less than a typical amount for fire services to assist Lonsdale as the board cleared debt up, Fisher explained.

“It has been more of a strain,” Fisher said, on the Saylesville Fire employees to cover an additional district with the same manpower.

“The labor issue continued to push the issue until it fell apart. It’s just so sad,” Babbitt said, calling the halt to the bill progress “disheartening to say the least.”

Speaking of the union, he said, “their members are going to lose because of this,” and told The Breeze the union’s priority should have been to get all of the men back to work.

In the meantime, Chief Fisher assured that Lonsdale residents would continue to receive fire services, but Almond pointed out that Londsale residents still have to call the state to assist with services like alarm testing and home inspections, as Saylesville isn’t authorized to perform those duties in Lonsdale.

“There’s going to be a lot of unanswered questions,” Almond said of the near future.

The town administrator said, “Right now, we’ve kind of got this thing thrown in our lap that’s messy and (we’ve) got to get to work now to get it straightened out.”