BURRILLVILLE – Residents in Nasonville Thursday night were not sold on a proposal that would have ended litigation between the fire district and the union staff that they terminated with a 62-20 vote last September.
The proposed resolution, reached through interest arbitration between the department’s union and an attorney representing the district’s operating committee, would have seen two full-time firefighters reinstated at a cost of roughly $110,000 a year, amounting to a 20 cent rate increase for taxpayers in 2019.
But starting in 2021, it would also include settlement payments of $50,000 a year for ten years to two firefighters injured on duty: union President Don Pariseau and Vice President Richard Hartley. Currently, those payments are made through the district’s insurance policy, but coverage is set to run out.
“It looks like an increase of 80 cents in 2021,” said resident Stephen Foy. “We’re back where we were last time when we were in here meeting..”
Attorney Timothy Cavazza, who has spent the past several months negotiating on behalf of the district, explained that the proposed settlement cost was actually a deal. 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: an obligation that could last for decades if the firefighter remains disabled.
“If the claim lasts for the lifetime of those firefighters, we’d be talking seven figures,” Cavazza explained. “The number could be very significant.”
Foy asked if a settlement could be reached without reinstating union employees and ultimately opening the district up to further liability for potential injuries.
“I’ve been negotiating this with the union and the individuals, and their position at this time is they go hand in hand,” Cavazza replied. “Those individuals hold leadership positions in the union, so the individuals are the union.”
The attorney noted that residents could reject the settlement, and take the position that payment to the injured firefighters is not due because they have no job to return to, in light of the district’s September vote to eliminate paid staff,
“That position would be challenged,” Cavazza said. “You would very likely end up in court – probably before the Rhode Island Supreme Court – to determine if your argument was correct.”
Around three dozen voters present for the special meeting opted instead to table the issue to explore other options, despite warnings from Cavazza that the settlement may no longer be in play.
“I can’t guarantee that this proposal or even something close to this will be on the table after tonight,” he told the group.
It was unclear this week what options do remain for the independent village fire department, one of four in the town of Burrillville. Fire equipment for Nasonville has sat, collecting dust in the Victory Highway station since paid firefighters were eliminated as part of a budget vote four months ago, after contract negotiations between the union and the operating committee broke down.
The committee terminated two year Chief Joseph Bourquin soon after the decision, which put 10 part-time and three full-time firefighters out of work, an action that ultimately led the entire volunteer force of 27 firefighters to resign.
Both residents and board members admitted Thursday night that the reaction by volunteers came as something of a surprise. And it seems efforts to recruit a new volunteer force have either not been fully pursued, or have been unsuccessful.
Instead, the Oakland Mapleville Fire District has been first to respond to Nasonville’s calls, an arrangement several residents said has worked “beautifully.”
But in the months that followed the abrupt closure of a department with a 78- year history, the union has launched legal challenges on multiple fronts.
Cavazza has faced Rhode Island State Association of Firefighters President Joseph Andriole in the arbitration, a process governed under state law.
But on Thursday, Jan. 31, several residents expressed dissatisfaction with the outcome.
Foy asked if it would make sense for the district to fight the legal battle, then declare bankruptcy and consolidate with another district if they lost.
“What would be the legal implications of that?” he asked. “We fold our cards if we lose.”
Cavazza noted that the Rhode Island Fiscal Stability Act would govern such a process, a complex procedure involving a receiver as well as a sign off by the governor’s office.
The cost to settle the claims meanwhile, would come out to $250,000 per individual.
As they debated their move forward, a resident pointed out that one of the injured parties had applied for another job as a firefighter, a fact that Cavazza confirmed. It was noted that two out of the district’s three full-time firefighters were off due to injuries when the decision to let paid staff go was made in fall.
“This is by far one of the highest rates that I’ve ever seen,” Cavazza said.
Speaking with NRI NOW following the meeting, Hartley said that he did apply for another job as a firefighter, but that it happened before he was ordered out of work by the then chief. The union vice president said he tore a bicep on a rescue call in March of 2016, an injury for which he is still receiving care.
“I landed on top of my patient,” said Hartley. “The reason I got hurt is I was on duty by myself.”
Hartley said he attempted to return to work, but ultimately ended up having surgery for an injury that has still not healed.
“This changed my life,” Hartley said, adding that he still gets numbness and tingling in his hand. “I have a six-year-old son I can’t play ball with.”
Pariseau verified that the disability claims will only be settled with the reinstatement of the union.
With frustration in the room clearly mounting on Thursday, Town Council President John Pacheco, a Nasonville resident, was among those who spoke up.
“My thought here is: we’ve gone four months without a fire department. So why don’t I take my tax money, divide it by three, and give it to the other fire districts? Or is it time to look at having a Burrillville Fire Department?” asked Pacheco. “It could improve public safety and save money. ”
“I think this is the time to do it,” he added. “The obstacles are the other fire districts.”
District Attorney Michael Crane told the group that “no options are being closed off,” but added, “Nasonville has been around a long, long time. It’s not just going to go away overnight.”
The issue was tabled until Tuesday, March 5 at 7 p.m. But Crane noted that Tuesday, Feb. 12 is the operating committee’s next monthly meeting.
“Don’t be shy,” he said. “Obviously this is a big issue. It’s no small actions to be taken, one way or another.”
Editor’s note: Quotes in this article previously attributed to Robert L’Esperance have been correctly attributed to district attorney Michael Crane. We apologize for the error.