Auditor General seeks deficit reduction plan for Cumberland Fire Department

Auditor General seeks deficit reduction plan for Cumberland Fire Department

CUMBERLAND – Four years after the town’s independent fire districts merged into a single entity, the Cumberland Fire Department is now staring down a roughly $600,000 cumulative deficit.

Residents should expect another 4 percent increase on their fire tax bill in the next fiscal year as the district continues to try to dig out of its hole.

The Rhode Island Office of the Auditor General has requested that the district submit a formal deficit reduction plan that details its plans to eliminate a $282,712 deficit for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2018. A letter from Auditor General Dennis Hoyle to Fire Chief Kenneth Finlay also notes that an additional operating deficit is being projected for 2019.

Board of Fire Commissioners Chairwoman Cynthia Ouellette said the reasons for the cumulative deficit are threefold, beginning with the tax rate.

“When the merger occurred, the former chairperson tried to keep the tax rate down so the people would see a decrease. Unfortunately in hindsight that was not a good thing to do … we weren’t thinking forward. That was one of the first contributors to that debt,” she said.

Another was the department’s failure to fully fund overtime two years ago in fiscal year 2017.

Third, Oullette said there was an “extraordinary” increase in injured personnel that year, with 11 total out on paid leave.

“We are not going to solve the debt problem in a year,” she told The Valley Breeze. “…but we have trimmed the budget and are still in a spending freeze that I will encourage the committee to continue until further notice.”

At a meeting of the Cumberland Fire District at the Cumberland Public Library on May 7, Fire Commissioner and Finance Chairman Vincent Picone said the board “did a lot of math” to determine the best way to pay off the $600,000 deficit within five years while adding money to the general reserve account and ensuring they have cash on hand.

Most notably, a new line item was added to the budget for “union negotiation concessions,” which are expected to reduce the contracted salaries line by $350,000. Picone said the district added the line in anticipation of the savings.

The board has begun to funnel money into its deficit repayment account, pulling dollars from other areas of the budget. More than $15,600 was moved from the capital improvement fund to the deficit repayment account, plus $5,000 from the contingency account and $2,500 from the drills and training line. The board’s recommended budget includes a total of $150,000 in the deficit repayment account and $110,130 in the general reserves account and $25,000 slated for capital improvements.

After approving these amendments to the proposed budget last week, the Board of Fire Commissioners voted unanimously for a total budget of roughly $8.51 million, up from $8.42 million last year and $7.96 million the year before.

The 4 percent tax increase residents will likely see this summer is the maximum allowed under state law. The budget increase will be supported by a hike in the tax rate from $1.986 to $2.053 per $1,000 of assessed value.

Though he voted in support of the budget, Vice Chairman Philip Koutsogiane said he was doing so “with great reluctance, in light of the hard work of the board members to come up with the correct numbers to meet the operational requirements of the district and state of R.I.”

Picone said said he expects there to be “much stricter control on spending” going forward.

At-large member Paul Santoro, while thanking Picone and others for their work on the budget, called the process “arduous at best.” He added, “I think this budget represents the best efforts of the committee and the deficit reduction account represents a good faith effort for the Auditor General that should be recognized.”

He said he would be donating his commissioner stipend and would like to see it directed to the deficit reduction account, if possible.

During public comment, taxpayer Greg Dicomitis expressed concern over the rising deficit.

“I understand putting money into a deficit account, but we’re still running a deficit. We still have a long way to go,” he said.

Ouellette asked whether he could offer any suggestions to the board. Decomitis countered that he doesn’t have all of the answers, but that he has attended every meeting since the merger and is growing more concerned.

“My only concern is the deficit, and like everybody else in this town, taxes,” he said. “I can’t speak for everyone else, but I’m looking out for myself.”

Ouellette said she is refusing to entertain layoffs or closing a station, but commissioners need to start thinking outside of the box.

“Although we are experiencing financial difficulties as a result of a number of issues that have been discussed in a number of articles over past few years, we will continue to provide the residents of Cumberland with excellent service. That will not stop,” she said. “We are finalizing a plan to tighten our belts, and with all the measures we’re putting in place, we hope to reduce that deficit in the next couple of years.”

In other related news, Kelley Morris stepped down as general counsel for the Board of Commissioners, effective May 7. She will be replaced by Richard Sinapi, who will be paid $125 an hour for consultation services and $175 an hour for all other matters.

Comments

Inflation is not running at much higher than 2% for years now but yet we are hit with 4% increases pretty much every year just because State Law says you can.
Mean while I have not received much more than 1% pay raise in the private sector.
Since the merger my fire tax more than doubled, this is not be sustainable. This is not the reduction we were promised that would come with the merger.
We have too large a force that is not needed.
A study needs to be done to determine how much time is spent actually responding to calls versus sitting in the station idle. This could be a basis for how large or small the force should be.
We should also entertain having part time personnel who could be activated on an as needed basis.
I also notice that every call probably has too many units responding, likely to bolster the on call time, this needs to stop, that's what radios are for.

The time for belt tightening has come and past, enough already with this overspending of the taxpayers money.

The fire board needs to get tough or let some else be elected who will reign in this ballooning budget.

Such an embarrassment this is.....that the Auditor General was convinced enough that the elected officials of the Cumberland Fire Department simply have refused to face facts that bankruptcy was looming, (instead opting to carry forward deficits into the next year....a violation of law) and saw fit to "request" them (thankfully) to admit to and correct the issue of flowing red ink.
Mr. McKee rammed this ill thought out boondoggle down the taxpayers proverbial throats, clearly recognizing at the time, or should have, that the Town of Cumberland taxpayers would suffer.
The remaining dedicated volunteers were chased out of the firehouses by the newly elected officials....ironically assisted by their (ff) peers who had been hired by the newly formed CFD as full time fire fighters. The elected officials voted themselves hefty stipends for a task that should be done without cost as their contribution to their Town. The CFD was formed with top heavy, highly paid personnel, causing immediate trauma to the prepared budget.
Approximately 6-8 months ago a certain female official of the CFD attempted to alert Cumberland residents of the financial strife that was being felt within; her attempts were quickly stifled as she did a complete 180 degree turnaround only days later, retracting her concerns....
The statement "We will continue to provide the residents with excellent service, that will not stop" is not entirely accurate. What should be revealed to us as taxpayers is how often fire apparatus from Woonsocket, Lincoln & Central Falls respond to Cumberland.....not for major fires but for routine calls, to include assisting the Cumberland rescue. Perhaps CFD should look into the practice that the LimeRock fire department from Lincoln employs, when employees call out sick, a piece of apparatus is taken out of service....thus overtime cost eliminated! Perhaps another line item over expenditure could be addressed if blanket restrictions were put on using taxpayer owned department vehicles for grocery shopping, banking and picking up their dry cleaning while on duty. This financial dilemma will not go away by raising out taxes; the formation of the CFD was a blundered mis-step from the start and department officials need to either correct it or step down from their elected positions. How cowardly it is to place the blame of a former chairperson as the cause of this situation!

Let us not forget the two General Assembly members who shepherded this legislation through the House and Senate. State Representative Mia Ackerman and State Senator Ryan Pearson. They worked with the Mayor that pushed for General Assembly approval for consolidation.

We the taxpayers are now getting our punishment for voting to merge the 4 departments. Didn't anyone thing that wasn't going to happen? You will be taxed 4% yearly forever because their will always be a deficit until it becomes unsustainable or we say NO MORE. I am willing to pay as needed I also pay homeowners.