In 90 days, 44 firefighters and four administrators will be out of a job, the largest fire district in town will be without a dedicated fire department and some — or all — Coventry residents might be facing large supplemental tax bills to pay off a debt that could range from $20 to $30 million.
Meanwhile, Town Council President Gary P. Cote has planned a meeting for next Tuesday with the fire chiefs and representatives of the town’s three other fire districts to discuss a contingency plan to split coverage of the Central Coventry Fire District, which is all but certain to be liquidated starting May 16 after Superior Court Judge Brian P. Stern finally ended a protracted legal case that has embroiled this town of 33,000 for the last few years.
Residents in the Central Coventry Fire District are now asking : what’s next? And more importantly, how much is this going to all cost?
Dave Gorman, president of the firefighter’s union puts the cost estimate at about $25 to $30 million. The beleaguered fire district has about $2 million in the bank and selling off all the fire engines, buildings, equipment and everything else certainty won’t cover the whole debt.
“It didn’t have to come to this,” Gorman said. But he said the writing was on the wall and he, like many, were not surprised by Stern’s ruling this week.
“[The judge] had no choice,” Gorman said.
“At the end of the day, the firefighters will move on and find new jobs but the people of the Central Coventry Fire District are going to be left with a gaping hole and the people of Coventry are going to have to pay down the debt,” he said.
Cote said the town is in a catch-22, since the town charter says the town is responsible for the safety and health of all residents even though the fire districts have their own legislative charters and Coventry itself doesn’t provide fire service.
He agrees that Judge Stern had no choice. His hands were tied, Cote said, and “ultimately we’re going to have to provide service to taxpayers.”
The plan to split the Central Coventry Fire District up by three will be submitted to the judge and receiver, Cote said. It’s an idea that isn’t new, but it’s what must happen to make sure residents can go to sleep at night knowing someone will heed their calls for help if needed.
While Gorman says the fallout from the liquidation could finally be the impetus for the town choosing to create its own municipal fire service, or at least, consolidation of the different fire districts, Cote said there’s not much appetite for that on the Town Council.
“There is no flavor on the town council right now to establish a municipal fire department,” Cote said. “And I don’t think that it’s fair to the surrounding districts that have done everything right — to lose what they have because of the mistakes of the Central Coventry Fire District.”
And for the town to take on the responsibility of negotiating with what would become the largest union in the town is risky because “Coventry doesn’t have a good history of dealing with municipal unions,” Cote said. “The definition of insanity is to keep making mistakes and expecting the same results.”
Still, the quandary remains for local officials to figure out how to ensure adequate fire service for the residents in the liquidated district. And who ends up holding the bag is up for debate. If every Coventry resident had to pay up, it could be a supplemental tax approaching $10,000 per household. That number only goes up if the burden isn’t distributed town-wide.
And any changes would require significant legal heavy lifting. Each fire district exists as taxing authorities, legislatively enabled with their own charters. But each brings its own chief, board, administrative staff and overhead.
“This is an opportunity for the town and the fire districts to get their collective heads out of the sand and move forward with one town-wide fire department,” Gorman said. “The way that we deliver services in this town are so upside down and archaic. It’s just a backwards way of delivering fire and rescue services.”
And with liquidation, the trucks, stations and equipment will be sold off so any new fire district will have to be built from the ground up.
Gorman said the issue spun out of control as time wore on, the election year last year not helping matters as more and more voices entered the fray. It clouded the focus of everyone involved, he said, and productive work on finding a way to restructure the debt, pass a budget and keep operating kept getting pushed aside with rhetoric and politics.
“I’m frustrated with the ruling. I expected it, but I’m frustrated,” Gorman said. “The mechanism is in place, the funding is in place, it’s just a matter of paying back debt and everyone lost focus on that. They were attacking the firefighters contract attacking operations of the department, putting blame on previous administrations. They lost focus on the judge’s order of paying back the debt and going forward.”
More coverage of the fire district ruling will be posted soon. Mark Schieldrop can be reached at Mark.Schieldrop@patch.com