Fire districts asked to weigh in on consolidation

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BURRILLVILLE – Would you support the future consolidation of your fire district with one or more of the other fire districts in the town of Burrillville?

Councilor David Place says that it’s a simple “Yes or No,” question that he’d like to see residents answer on the November ballot.

Place didn’t get the needed support last week for his plan to put that exact wording before voters, but the Town Council did agree to ask the fire districts themselves to weigh in – including one that does not operate independently.

“This is not the council trying to take control of the fire department. We don’t want that,” said Place. “We have confidence in the fire districts to manage themselves.”

“My fear is the state’s going to come down here and impose this on us,” said Place. “We as policy makers need to know where the community stands on this issue. I think it’s important for all the decision makers, both on the town level and the fire district level, to understand where it is that the people in this community want to go.”

The districts, which operate with no funds from the town or the state, raise money primarily through fire taxes, as well as third party rescue billing and various grants and donations. Each serves one or more of the town’s villages, with separate stations serving Pascoag, Harrisville, Nasonville and Oakland/Mapleville.

Each is governed by its own individual board.

Proponents of consolidation say that money-saving efficiencies are gained through merging, and critics of the district format question if the smaller fire boards have enough oversight.

On the statewide level, prior to 2013, there had been few changes to the district format then used in 11 Rhode Island communities. A report that year prepared by the Department of Revenue noted that there were 42 districts in the state, only a slight decline from the 45 operating in Rhode Island in 1946.

That same year, the General Assembly passed legislation allowing Cumberland to merge four fire districts into one, and in 2014, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello called the multi-district approach within individual communities antiquated, saying cities and towns needed to take the lead in addressing it.

Cumberland ultimately elected a “Fire Committee” in the same fashion as a school committee, with one committee person from each Council district and two at large.

But recent reports have documented an explosion of overtime costs in the town, and have brought into question if any savings will ever be achieved.

In Burrillville, six full time EMT/firefighters serve a population of approximately 1,150 households in Harrisville, along with 40 volunteers.

The Pascoag Fire district provides fire protection and emergency medical services to about five thousand people over an area of twenty-seven square miles, and has three chiefs, two captains, between two-four lieutenants, and around 65 firefighters.

The Oakland/Mapleville district encompasses an area of approximately thirteen square miles with a resident population of approximately 4,400. It is staffed by per diem firefighters seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., and nights from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. The per diem force is augmented by volunteers as needed.

The Nasonville district serves a village population of 4,000 residents and employs three full-time and 12 part-time firefighters, with help from 20 volunteers.

Place, who has served on the Burrillville Town Council since 2010, also sits on the board of the Harrisville Fire District Committee, and noted that while that group hasn’t taken an official vote on the issue, through conversations, he’s learned there’s general support for consolidation in the district.

“We’re not going to do what Cumberland did,” said Place. “They did it really bad.”

Council members noted that they have received communication from one district opposed to the idea of placing the issue on the ballot. They said they would like official communication to gauge the level of interest all had in uniting with one or more of the other companies.

“I would like to see some correspondence from the fire departments on whether they want to do it or not,” said Councilor Raymond Trinque.

To put the question before voters on the November ballot, the town would need to obtain approval from the Secretary of State by August.

“I think most of us at this table are in favor of savings through consolidation,” said Councilor Donald Fox. “There’s no doubt that there are savings to be made for the for the residents of this town who all pay fire district taxes.”

Place disputed whether to not consolidation would help residents save money saying that there are, “a lot of the misconceptions of the savings aren’t necessarily there.”

Councilor Stephen Rawson referenced Place’s wording on the issue, saying, “The only question I have is: where did you come up with the number five?”

Place responded that although Wallum Lake is funded through Pascoag, their input should be solicited because, “The members of the fire district take it personally if you don’t include them.”

Fox said residents, generally, are confused about the issue and don’t understand why they receive a separate fire tax.

“I fielded many questions on fire district taxes without the ability to provide any coherent answer,” said Fox. “My first question is ‘have you been to any of your fire district meetings? Of course 99.9 percent of the time the answer is ‘no.'”

“I think there is something to be said of questions in the community in terms of who to talk to,” Fox added. “People generally ask about their taxes.”

Place said the council already voted 6-1 to put the consolidation question on the ballot and the only outstanding question was what language to use, but Rawson questioned the statement saying, “I think we only asked for an opinion of the solicitor.”

Minutes from the board’s meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 14 state that the council voted unanimously to “request a non-binding referendum as to whether or not the fire districts should be consolidated throughout the town of Burrillville into a separate and independent district; and to refer to the solicitor for the actual language for the ballot; and then brought back to the council for final approval.”

Trinque said, “I’m all in favor of consolidation of fire districts,” but that tax questions make it a more complex issue. “Having a really simplistic question on the ballot doesn’t cover all of that.”

Place defended the language.

“The question is: does this community support it or doesn’t it?” he said. “You can hear people who say yes or no on both sides of the issue and can argue both sides of the issue.”

The council tabled Place’s discussion of the wording to put on the ballot.

“I think generally, when it’s well thought-out, there are savings that trickle down to the taxpayers,” said Fox. “But I would love to know what the other districts think about it.”

The council voted unanimously to send solicitation to districts asking for opinions to be provided before their next meeting in July.