Court Denies Three Motions by CCFD Board, Hears Update from Chief.
Warwick, RI- At Kent County Superior Courthouse, this past Friday Judge Brian Stern denied three motions that were put forth by the Central Coventry Fire District Board and also heard testimony from Fire Chief Andrew Baynes as to the status of personnel and equipment.
The tone for the hearing was set immediately after the Attorney for the Central Coventry Fire District Board, David D’Agastino, verbally explained a status report which was submitted to the court only moments before the hearing was set to begin.
The status report offered limited insight as to what the focus of the board has been thus far and as well as the Boards purported actions since being elected back in late June. The report offered to the court by the Board states “the current Board is committed to understanding what contributed to the fiscal crisis and preparing a best management practices plan, complete with accounting procedures that will ensure the mistakes of the past are not repeated and offer an opinion that the Board feels this is an essential component to its delegated authority, whether or not the District is closed and liquidated”. Additionally, the report included an update on citizens’ complaints that have been filed with the Attorney General for alleged Open Meeting violations and Access to Public Records request, as well as the status of negotiations with the firefighters Union, for which no negotiations have taken place since the board did not ratify the last concession package that was offered back in October.
The most anticipated portion of the report, for which the Board had to be ordered to comply with at the last court hearing, was the “Alternate Plan” or the “Contingency Plan”. Previously, Judge Stern had given the board four weeks to finalize and present a plan for public safety and protection if he orders liquidation. What was seen in the court by most present, was the fact that the Board could not offer a plan that had any substance. Each portion of the Boards Contingency plan relied on many other parties’ involvement and approval. The Board recommended that if the Liquidation is approved, then the fire and emergency services currently performed by the Central District could be handled by the other Districts and that EMS could be handled by a Private for-profit vendor. However, the plan lacked all of the necessary components to be able to classify it as a “substantive” plan and was construed to be more of a cocktail napkin contingency and unrealistic and unattainable. The ability to allow any or all of the other districts requires voter approval from each of the other individual districts and then it would have to muster support at the State House to make necessary and needed legislative changes to not only the CCFD Charter, but also to the other fire district charters as well. Judge Stern appeared to be less than happy with the Boards lack of planning and appeared to have expected a more in-depth plan which would allow for continuity of services. At one point, it was rather uncomfortable to be in the court room as the Boards’ Attorney floundered around to find answers to Judge Sterns direct questions.
The attorney for the firefighters, Marc Gursky pointed out that the board has failed to comply with numerous orders and directions that the court has set down and appears to be a “rudderless ship” adrift in the ocean.
As for the denied motions submitted by the Board, the First dealt with a request to send out a Request for Proposal or (RFP) to privatize the currently fire-based EMS services, to a private for-profit EMS service. Reason for the denial in part, was the myriad of legal questions in the poorly worded RFP, which would leave far too much liability on the District and ultimately the taxpayers.
In the boards’ second petition to the Court, which was denied, the petition sought to hire a bookkeeper. The bookkeeper would have been compensated at rate $43.00 dollars per hour and would have been an employee from the same firm as the boards current accountant. Judge Stern looked a bit puzzled at one point when he quizzically stated “the Board voted to close and liquidate a few weeks ago, now seek to hire a bookkeeper, so when the district is closed and shutdown at last the closed district will have the best looking books”. Judge Stern denied that motion. A previously approved request to hire an accountant to assist the Board with formulating a Budget and Tax levy was authorized by the court back in September. A final and third motion to sell off surplus and unused equipment was denied.
Testimony on the department equipment and personnel was presented to the court by Chief Baynes. Chief Baynes testified to the court that on the day the District filed for the Special mastership, the CCFD had nearly 50 employees plus administrative staff. Today, nearly 16 months later, the District has just about 36 firefighters and three support persons. The Chief said that there are four members eligible to retire at any time and that concerns him because there is no list in place to hire new personnel to replace any vacancies that may be created. He went on to say that the process could take as long as twenty four weeks or more to train any new hires and he is concerned that even if there was a list, who in their right mind would want to come work here under the scrutiny and employment conditions that the men have been unnecessarily subjected to. When asked by Judge Stern if he felt the District had the ability to respond to the needs of the taxpayers, the Chief said that he has all the faith and confidence in the men and explained that he has to maintain a minimal number of personnel to be able to respond. “I’m rapidly approaching a point where I can’t recycle personnel quick enough to let them rest then be back to the job again. These guys can withstand a lot, and I’ve worked in other communities with much more manpower, to see what these guys can do with so few people is very admirable, but at some point it’s all going to break”.
As for equipment, Chief Baynes stated that the equipment is operating and that all necessary repairs and maintenance have been performed to the existing fleet. The District is in the process of replacing a motor in its newest, 2009 rescue vehicle. He said things are no different than when they were back 15 months ago other than the District continuing to pour money into the upkeep of older vehicles. He said that the districts fleet is operating; he had submitted a five year Capital plan to the Special Master and the Board which would replace the aging fleet on a rotational basis. He went on to say that there was a $52,000.00 line item in the approved budget for the allocation and first payment for a new rescue truck chassis, but he has not been authorized to make the purchase.
Judge Stern did approve the Unions motion to have the Rhode Island State Labor Relations Board investigate Unfair Labor Practice charges brought against the Board.
Fred Tobin, The Town of Coventry’s Solicitor spoke briefly to the court stating that the Town was not in the Fire and Rescue business and had no desire or interest to get in that business.
The Special Master, the District, and the Union Attorneys’ had a divergence in opinion as to what liquidation would essentially mean for the District in the end. So the court set a briefing schedule for the lawyers to submit legal briefs by this Friday with a hearing date for the following Wednesday at which time the court will make a determination as to the specificity of what can be expected if liquidation is ordered.