BURRILLVILLE – After receiving feedback from the town’s independent fire districts, the Town Council voted to table the idea of placing a question regarding consolidation before voters on the November ballot.
The initiative was put forth by Councilor David Place, who had requested a non-binding referendum to see if the majority of town residents were interested in such a change, with the wording “Would you support the future consolidation of your fire district with one or more of the other fire districts in the town of Burrillville?”
Council members requested feedback on the issue from leadership in Pascoag, Oakland/Mapleville, Nasonville and Harrisville, adding on Wallum Lake, which operates as part of Pascoag.
“The majority of fire districts in town do not want this on the ballot,” said Councilor Raymond Trinque. “I don’t see an outpouring of support for a non-binding referendum from the people who it would affect most.”
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. The district approach is still utilized in around ten communities across Rhode Island, but leadership at the statewide level has pushed for consolidation as a means to create greater efficiencies and ideally savings, calling the concept antiquated.
Councilor Donald Fox said he agrees with the idea, but feels that the effort must begin at the district level.
“We know that the fire districts in this town have been political fiefdoms since they were created,” said Fox. “Consolidation in our state makes sense. We’re not that big.”
But, he noted, “It’s not in the purview of this council to force it.”
“Until the people who are taxpayers go to their district meetings and make it heard that that’s what they want, nothing is going to happen,” Fox said. “Let the people get sick and tired of whatever they’re paying.”
In Pascoag, despite some recent controversy and questions from resident’s regarding the district’s business practices, the idea of consolidation was unpopular.
“I would vote definitely against it,” said resident Ken Putnam during a meeting of the district’s Board of Commissioners earlier this week. “We’re all a family here. We don’t want to be in charge of the whole town of Burrilville.”
Kevin Stockwell pointed to the recent fire district consolidation in the town of Cumberland, which has reportedly led to an explosion in overtime costs.
“It’s not saving them any more,” said Stockwell. “We have some volunteers. We’ll keep our tax rate down and have more control. I think we’re best to keep control at the district level.”
Chief Harold Carter said, “I don’t feel it’s a great idea. Even with everything going on, we have the second lowest tax rate in the town. We have twice the equipment and two buildings, and we still keep our tax rate down.”
Deputy Chief Keith Carter questioned the motives of councilors pushing the issue forward.
“His agenda is because he wants to move into the statehouse,” said the deputy chief. “This is a political ploy. They close houses and it affects the taxpayers.”
Place, who is currently running for a position as a state representative for District 47, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Carter’s assessment.
Commissioners in Pascoag voted unanimously to let the Town Council know they were not interested in the idea.
Other districts, it seems, expressed similar sentiments, with Nasonville submitting a letter in opposition. Place serves on the board commissioners in Harrisville, and had said that the idea had some support there, but the district reportedly had not had their monthly meeting in time submit feedback to the council.
Councilor Jeremy Bailey said he spoke to several individuals in the town’s various fire districts.
“They were almost insulted that we were going to consider the referendum without consulting them,” said Bailey.
Councilor Stephen Rawson said he last brought up the issue 30 years ago.
“I think they should look at some consolidation – especially when it comes to EMT services,” said Rawson, noting that he also believes the effort must begin at the district level. “That’s just my personal opinion. If they wish to talk to us, we would assist them in any way we could.”