BURRILLVILLE – Dissolving an independent fire district that has operated in Burrillville for nearly 80 years will be a long process mired in litigation and state governance.
But on Tuesday, March 5, residents in Nasonville made clear that they want it to happen.
Village residents first voted 38 to 3 to reject a proposed settlement with the firefighter’s union that could have ended litigation between the district and the employees they opted to eliminate in September.
They instructed the board to continue receiving mutual aid from the neighboring community of Oakland Mapleville for now, and authorized members to negotiate fair rates when and if that district asks for compensation.
And in the 34-6 they ordered the department’s operating committee to initiate the process of dissolving the Nasonville Fire Department.
“Dissolving the district is not an option you have unilateral power over,” noted Timothy Cavazza, the attorney who has been representing the committee in litigation with former district employees since they were let go last year. “In order to dissolve a district you actually need the consent of the Department of Revenue. You need the state to sign on.”
The initiative to change emergency services in Nasonville began after contract negotiations between the committee and the union reportedly reached an impasse last year.
Given the choice of increasing their fire district taxes by more than 70 percent or decreasing the burden by more than 30 percent, residents voted 62-20 to eliminate the department’s paid staff at a meeting in late September.
At the time, committee members vowed to rebuild, and to focus on recruiting new volunteers.
On Tuesday, they admitted that the resignations came as a surprise, and that recruitment efforts have been unsuccessful.
“They did catch us off guard,” said Committee member Troy Phillips, noting that none of those volunteers actually lived in the village. “That was a problem anyway.”
“There’s been several applications that have been picked up, but only one has been returned,” said Phillips. “He doesn’t live in the district either. He’s one person and he’s just a kid. That’s pretty much what you have for volunteers.”
Since the exodus, the Oakland Mapleville Fire District has provided Nasonville’s services under a mutual aid agreement, which district general counsel Michael Crane noted this week hasn’t exactly been “mutual.”
“It’s really not mutual aid,” said Crane. “At some point they’re going to start charging you. The status quo is working because Oakland Mapleville is willing to sacrifice right now.”
Cavazza, meanwhile, has dealt with numerous legal challenges launched by former fire union employees, including a charge of unfair labor practices currently pending before the Rhode Island Labor Relations Board.
In January, the attorney presented residents a deal that would have seen two full-time firefighters reinstated. and payments of $50,000 a year for several years made to settle the claims of two former Nasonville Fire employees injured in the line of duty. State law dictates that as long as an employee is incapacitated from injuries received on duty, the district is responsible for 100 percent of their salary and benefits.
But residents said the cost was too high, a statement many repeated at the meeting this week.
“I’m a firm believer when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging,” said resident Stephen Foy.
“I see all of this gradually changing over the years and it’s not going to go in favor of the district,” said resident Ronald Pennington. “This is just going to grow, and your taxes are going to grow.”
Cavazza noted that technically, the deal was already off the table through a union vote following his presentation in January, but the issue did not end up being a concern.
Phillips said that Nasonville, on average, has just 12 calls for service a month.
“Before you know it, we’re going to be over a million dollars to cover one square mile,” said resident George Braun. “We just can’t afford that. A lot of people in this town are on a fixed income.”
Residents asked if it would be possible to compensate OMFD on a per run basis, and Cavazza noted that “another district in Lincoln went that route.”
“That is an option that at least one other district has taken,” the attorney said.
Town Council President John Pacheco pointed out that he just paid a tax bill of $800 to the Nasonville Fire Department, suggesting the district settle the disability claims with that money and look toward dissolving.
“I think we should be looking at the bigger picture,” said Pacheco. “I think we should look at having a bigger fire district. I think we’d end up with improved services.”
“We were paying for five fire chiefs in this town. Providence pays for one,” Pacheco added.
Phillips said he didn’t “totally disagree,” with the idea.
“I say we take our chances and let it go to the courts,” said Phillips. “Let the judge tell you that the people’s vote doesn’t count.”
The majority of residents in attendance ultimately agreed.
“I believe an initiative to dissolve our district furthers our case in Superior Court,” said Foy.
After the meeting Tuesday, Cavazza said he could not comment on the steps required for the district to dissolve. The process is governed in part by Rhode Island’s Fiscal Stability Act, a statute that allows for state intervention for fiscally unstable municipal entities. Dissolution may also require legislation to be passed by the General Assembly.
What’s clear is that pending litigation must first be resolved, and that alone will take time.
“It’s going to be a hard, long road,” Phillips noted.
Editor’s note: Quotes in this article previously attributed to Robert L’Esperance have been correctly attributed to district general counsel Michael Crane. We apologize for the error.