Pascoag Fire District hires St. Pierre as business manager, moves forward with cash saving efforts

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BURRILLVILLE – A former fire chief from a neighboring community has been hired as the business manager for the Pascoag Fire District, one of many ongoing changes in the village district that members of the governing board say will ultimately improve operations and efficiency of the small department.    

Mark St. Pierre, former chief of the Harrisville Fire District will serve in the part time, 15-hour-a-week role in Pascoag administration.

“He brings a lot to the table,” said Chris Toti, chairman of the Pascoag Fire Commission. “He brings a wealth of knowledge.”

Pierre served as chief in Harrisville for 27 years and received the Firefighter of the Year Award from the Rhode Island State Firefighters League in 2018. Toti noted that the former chief also worked in fire service for the airport corporation, and in the state forestry service.

“He was very successful in writing grants,” said Toti. “I think he’s going to be a really good fit.”

The hire is among many small but significant changes to personnel and business practices that have been implemented in recent months, partially in response to difficulties within the district last year that included violations with the Attorney General’s office and the state Ethics Board.

Toti, who joined the board last May following resignation of the former chairman, has been working with fellow commission members to implement several changes to the district’s business practices.

“It’s all about efficiency and accountability,” said the chairman, who was re-elected to what was a nominated role by district voters in September.  

Other changes for Pascoag Fire include moving the district’s banking from Washington Trust in Johnston to Citizens Bank in Chepachet, a switch Toti said is expected to save the department around $250 a month, plus generate a few hundred more through new investments.

The district is also looking at switching the company used for payroll services to a locally-based business – a change that will save another $65 a month per employee on the roughly one dozen paid and per diem staff members. Toti said he’s hopeful that the banking switch will officially go into effect in January.

To address a debt-to-asset ratio that the chairman says is too high, the board is looking at a plan to pay down the principal, and speed up the timeline, to pay off two loans for fire equipment. Currently, Toti says the district is carrying around $720,000 in debt – a figure that will jump to $1.34 million in the next fiscal year if no action is taken.

The seven and ten-year loans were used to purchase two fire trucks. 

“We may bundle that and drop it down to five or six years,” Toti said, noting that move is in the preliminary stages, and could be made official in February or March.

Toti said the the district has also completed contract negotiations with the Pascoag union, and has reached a one-year deal that includes a 2 percent increase for staff, an agreement he expects to be presented at the commission’s next meeting.

The chairman said the short-term deal was reached instead of a more conventional three-year contract because the board is still looking at potential changes to the roles and responsibilities of district staff.

“They were very understanding,” Toti said of the union. “For the short term, I think this is a good thing for the district.”

The philosophy of holding off on longer-term commitments is also the reason there has not yet been a vote to renew Chief Harold Carter, a decision normally made following the commission’s annual meeting in September.

Carter has not been present at most commission meetings since a clash with residents in February, before Toti joined the board.

“With any organization, you try to look at what’s best for the long term,” said Toti, when asked about the chief position. “For the short term, we’re continuing with the same team.”

While Toti notes that most of the adjustments made so far in Pascoag are small, he’s optimistic about the district’s future, which seemed precarious to some at the start of the year.

“If we bring some business practices to bear? I think it’s going to pay dividends,” the chairman said. 

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