BURRILLVILLE – Residents are questioning a plan by the Pascoag Fire District Board of Commissioners to sell a piece of fire-fighting equipment, saying the action violates district bylaws, which require voter approval to dispose of such assets.
Attorney Christopher Alger, however, has advised commissioners that they are authorized to sell the 20-year-old vehicle at a cost of less than $50,000 without a vote by taxpayers.
The legal advice is disputed by some, who say it’s a misinterpretation of the district’s governing document and an overstep of the board’s authority – and that historically it has never been done.
“They’re trying to sell apparatus out from underneath the taxpayers without permission,” said Keith Carter. “Any assets that belong to the Pascoag Fire District have to go before voters.”
The dispute revolves around a truck Carter says is critical equipment, the only apparatus of its kind in town, holding lighting and the jaws of life.
“They know if it went before the taxpayers, it would never get sold,” Carter said of the vehicle. “There’s a lot of people that depend on that truck.”
Article VII of the fire district’s bylaws govern the sale of, “any division or department,” of the PFD, stating terms that include public vote at a special meeting, with each qualified voter to receive written notice 30 days prior, and approval by at least three quarters of voters.
According to Alger, the truck does not qualify under that language if it’s sold for less than $50,000 – a benchmark used in several other sections of the bylaws.
“We took a look at it,” Alger told NRI NOW of the wording. “Any contract the district enters into over $50,000 should go before the taxpayers.”
“I have never heard of that,” Carter said of the move to sell the truck without the voting procedure. “They always had to go before the taxpayers.”
Carter points out that a recent previous effort to sell another vehicle – a 2012, 3,000 gallon tanker – was twice rejected by voters. By keeping the cost at $50,000, he says, those who want to see the current sale go through have found a way to subvert the will of the taxpayers.
But the attorney said the truck’s valuation just happened to land at the benchmark.
“Obviously, it’s right on that line, and it’s certainly a fine line,” Alger said.
And he disputes the idea that the vehicle is a necessity.
“It goes on call a couple times a year,” Alger said. “It’s kind of a paperweight at this point.”
But Carter is not alone in his assessment. Resident Cynthia Lussier said she also takes issue with the plan to sell the truck without letting taxpayers weigh in, an idea originally schedule to go before the commission at a meeting on Monday, April 5, which was later cancelled.
“I believe that the by-laws are clear that any asset of the Pascoag Fire District must go through the process outlined in the by-laws prior to selling,” said Lussier.
“The process must be followed,” Lussier said. “The taxpayers want transparency and honesty from the Board of Commissioners, not more closed door deals.”
The full bylaws can be found here.
Carter said he believes the ultimate goal of the effort to sell off equipment is to close the district’s Howard Avenue station.
The resident, who once served as the district’s deputy chief, said he learned of the sale by accident when a fire chief from Ohio called him thinking that he was calling his brother, former Pascoag Fire Chief Harold Carter, and that Harold was still running the Pascoag district. Former Chief Carter was terminated in November of 2019, at the same meeting where Keith was placed on a two week suspension.
At the time, commissioners did not provide details regarding the suspension, noting only that it was a, “personnel issue.”
According to Keith, the issue began when Deputy Chief Richard Peck submitted a complaint against him after he spun the tires on his pickup truck – an issue that should fall under authority of the chief. Instead, the commission suspended him, “pending further investigation,” and he was later told to apologize.
“I have a lead foot,” Carter said, adding that the action wasn’t personal. Instead, Carter says, he decided to retire.
Commission Chairman Chris Toti disputed the idea that the equipment sale means the goal is to close down a station.
“We’ve got to get leaner on our equipment,” Toti said. “Getting leaner and selling a piece of equipment doesn’t necessarily mean closing down one of the fire stations. There’s no correlation between selling a piece of equipment and shutting down”
In fact, Toti said, the commission’s agenda for Monday, April 12 will include a vote to potentially purchase a new rescue truck.
“There’s not enough room at Hose 1 for both rescues,” Toti said of the district’s second station on Pascoag Main Street. “They don’t need a 20 year old truck that gets used once a year. It opens a spot.”
But the commission chairman – who has made searching for efficiencies and ways to save money part of his mission since he was elected to the board in 2019 – said he’s always open to ways to run the district more effectively, in collaboration with staff.
According to Keith Carter, the latest sale is a done deal. The truck, he notes, was posted for sale, and the Ohio chief said he already sent a deposit.
“It’s already sold,” Carter said.
Toti denies the assertion.
“We have not, to my knowledge, gotten any money and nor would we do that without approval of the board,” he said. “There is a bonafide offer.”
The chairman said that while he understands residents’ concerns the commission’s efforts are all focused on providing services at reasonable rate. Under the board’s current plan, he says the district will be able to replace outdated trucks every five years with cash.
“I would much rather buy vehicles than go to bonding,” he said. “It’s just drain on the taxpayers.”
Update: The commission voted to sell the truck at the meeting on Monday, April 12 by a 4-1 vote, with Commission James Richard casting the only dissent.
Editor’s note: An original version of the above article stated that the truck was listed for sale on the New England Fire Apparatus website. The company was not involved with the sale. We apologize for the error.