Cumberland Fire Dept.’s message: We’re going to be fine

Cumberland Fire Dept.’s message: We’re going to be fine

CUMBERLAND – The Cumberland Fire Department is better off today as one combined district than it was years ago as four separate ones, say some fire officials, and they contend that financial numbers prove it.

District Finance Director Diane Karolyshyn, at a June 26 meeting to update Fire Board members, said her in-depth analysis of the four separate districts and the combined district, with 4-percent average tax rate increases built in for each over the past four years, adds up to a merger savings of about $3.73 million.

But Commissioners Paul Santoro and Jim Scullin disputed that the district is in a good position, Santoro saying the numbers presented by Karolyshyn and former Chairman Bruce Lemois were “pie in the sky."

Fire Board Chairwoman Cynthia Ouellette had previously suggested that other communities contemplating merging fire districts shouldn't expect savings from doing so, but later backtracked on those comments. She said at the June 26 meeting that she now believes, after meeting with Lemois and others, that the district is in solid shape going forward.

Scullin made a motion to postpone the presentation on the district's finances because it wasn't advertised, but his motion failed.

Ouellette said a Breeze story last month detailing Scullin's comments on the financial straits of the department, as well as a resulting firestorm of criticism, “was actually a good thing,” as it caused fire officials to take a deeper look at how far the district has come. Commissioners became so wrapped up in short-term financial troubles that they forgot about the progress, she said.

The Breeze reported June 7 that extra overtime expenditures led to a maximum tax increase for the district. In February, fire officials were still discussing a bond for a new Fire Station 2 on the ballot this fall, but those plans had been discarded by April.

The state is now recommending there be maximum 4-percent tax increases for as long as five years so the department can build an adequate surplus.

Karolyshyn told commissioners that “we are not in bankruptcy, nor are we close to receivership,” and if the district was, the state would have stepped in by now. Officials regularly meet with state finance authorities, she said. Cash flow is tight because the 3-year-old Cumberland Fire Department is a new entity and doesn't have reserves for unexpected expenses.

She offered a history lesson on some of the problems the four previous Cumberland fire districts were experiencing prior to the merger, including inequalities in tax rates. Districts underfunded 2015 budgets leading up to the merger, she said. The newly merged district then acquired the expenses.

Lemois said that prior to the first budget approved for the new combined district in 2015, he offered an estimate showing a projected $7 million in savings over seven years. The $3.7 million over half that time puts the district on target, he said.

Fire Chief Kenneth Finlay, responding to accusations that he hasn't funded the department's overtime budget properly, said last year was unusually tough for injuries, all legitimate ones, and his numbers heading into it were based on historic numbers.

Finlay said he took offense to suggestions that the department is near bankruptcy. Some of the biggest critics have “no desire” to get facts, he said. Negative comments have an effect on the morale of the department.

Lemois later added that if leaders of a company talk about it potentially going bankrupt, employees with mortgages to pay, car loans to meet, and college payments to make will surely be less focused and be more susceptible to injury.

New Commissioner Vinnie Picone asked Finlay what efforts have been made to reduce overtime in other areas. The chief responded that members have been good about limiting vacation time needed, have been cautious about sick time, and that 50 hours of overtime have been addressed by having a deputy chief fill a position.

Scullin objected to statements that the district is in good shape, saying it's “living on a shoestring,” with expensive administrative costs, old apparatus and the likelihood of short-term borrowing every year.

Santoro said the positive fund balance the district is now showing is due to its short-term borrowing. Karolyshyn responded that the borrowed money was used to pay bills, and the shortfall was due to people not paying their taxes on time. It had nothing to do with profit and loss, she said.

Santoro said he believes “past mistakes” have set the committee up for a difficult future. Ouellette acknowledged one “tough year” when the district didn't have a finance director available, but emphasized that the department is an “emerging business,” now able to better handle what's going on.

Former Commissioner Ronald Champagne reminded commissioners how the North Cumberland district refinanced and lowered taxes prior to the merger, all with an attitude that the new committee would deal with the situation.

Former North Cumberland Fire District Board of Trustees Chairman Edward LeBlanc asked Finlay what his department is doing to implement safety and physical fitness programs to prevent the kind of injuries that happened in the 2017-2018 year. Finlay responded, “We have weight rooms at all the stations,” and “most of the firefighters participate in some type of physical fitness when they're on duty.” The department had a “long winter,” with three slips on ice resulting in injury, he noted.

LeBlanc said he understands that Cumberland Fire is a “new business” of sorts, but said now that it's on its second chairman, “the argument might run its course soon.”

Lemois defended his record of negotiating a new contract for firefighters, saying though there was an overall “pittance” savings of $17,000, the district could have seen increased costs if the matter had gone to arbitration, where salaries never go down. He recalled how the very first item commissioners brought to the table was to bring all firefighters up to the same wage, how union members signed it right away, and how commissioners then announced that they had to find a way to fund it. There were firefighters who earned less overall in benefits and salaries their first year under a combined district, he said.

That contract is up for new negotiations this fall.

Lemois repeated that the Cumberland Fire Department is “in good hands. It's got problems, but it's in good hands.”

He said, “I don't mean smart, I mean good people with good hearts who want to serve the community.” Lemois said he often reminds people who question their fire bills that they're essentially paying for an insurance policy for what firefighters “are willing to do” if needed.

Ouellette said she hopes the assurance on the finances “satisfies the naysayers” and that firefighters receive the message that the district isn't in trouble.

“Looking forward, I see nothing but great things for the Cumberland Fire Department,” she said.

Comments

The headline should have been we're going to be fine, IF we raise your taxes 4% per year for the next 5 years.

What a crock.

What happened to all these savings? 4% this year and a recommended 4% each year for the next five additional years.

When you compound the 4% this year and then 4% for the next 5 years, it is just not 24% increase for the next 5 years but much much higher.

Compounding that $500.00 will be $632.00 in five years

I just finished reading this article I am hoping that Mr. Lemois comment about the commissioner "I don't mean smart" was taken out of context. This group has been challenged by many factors over this year and are trying to do their Best. As far a Mr Champagnes comment about North Cumberland Fire District, didn't Cumberland Hill do the same thing by funding some of their budget with fire prevention money? I believe I pay my taxes to have available the best firefighters at a given notice I don't think they should be compared as an insurance policy. I already have one that would cover me if my place burns down. I thought a merger would be a good thing I think it still can be but can someone tell where the 900 thousand dollars of savings per year has gone . (3.7 million divided by 42 months). Firefighters and Board members Thank you for your service but please keep people accountable.

Well between the fire department and the Coup trying to overthrow the Mayor and pump money into the schools ( you know that"s their plan) I best get ready to sell. The piggy bank will be empty .

So, it is recommended that there be a 4% tax increase every year for the next five years to have a surplus. Isn't this just great. Where are the savings we were promised. And I am sure that the school department will also be asking for their 4% every year. Is anyone held accountable? I wish that I could get 4% raises every year.
I am asking that someone in Town government step up and seek some sanity here. It is time for leadership, I would like to hear the candidates discuss how they will restore some fiscal responsibility to Town givernment.

marcelbo,
After this election it is very possible that the town council will be controlled by the school committee. There are 3 now there and 2-3 more running this year so don't count on any help for us taxpayers. The only candidate so far that I see will try and keep things in check is Mike Kinch. He's the only one to stand up to the council last budget meeting and try and talk them out of the million dollars they just gave them. On a side note, isn't it funny how Mr. DiModica is crying about the fire dept. when every year he wants 5-6% for the schools. I guess schools are more important (with a surplus) then fire protection.

This comment thread is a study in cognitive dissonance. The fire department is lambasted for running a deficit this year, the school committee ridiculed for running a surplus. A school district that improves graduation rates dramatically, improves test scores dramatically, and has a nationally recognized elementary school all while having the lowest or near lowest-in-the-state financial resources is irresponsible but a mayor who uses millions in savings to offset electorally unfavorable tax increases is lauded for his fiscal discipline. A School Committee and town councillors who lobbied the state for and ultimately garnered hundreds of thousands in additional state funding for schools are not looking out for taxpayers but a gentleman who stands up at one Town Council meeting to voice opposition to a tax increase right before he declares his candidacy is a clear champion of the taxpayer. And of course if there are people running for offices other than the School Committee who espouse support for town schools then there must be some organized education cabal out to bankrupt the taxpayers in town.

The alternative would be that there is actually a more widely held belief among Cumberland’s residents that spending money for community services is not inherently bad, those that question why the 16th wealthiest town in the state which has the lowest business tax rate of neighboring communities has difficulty funding public services and attracting businesses, those that question how a town can go three years without a tax increase while still expecting to provide the same level of services, those that question the fiscal responsibility of a mayor who draws down millions from the town’s savings account to offset increased spending while simultaneously patting himself on the back for not raising taxes, those for whom the town’s bond rating (based on financial audits that the mayor’s own finance director says inaccurately portray the town’s true savings account value) is not the ultimate scorecard for community health.

That alternative is clearly inconceivable to some but in this election residents can choose from candidates who represent each viewpoint, as well as others. Go out and vote. And don’t forget to pay your fire tax bill on time. If more people pay on time it should reduce the amount the fire district has to borrow in TANs, and thus reduce the amount of tax dollars going to interest on those TANs.