Published Sept. 25 at 5:21 p.m., Updated Sept. 26 at 9:52 a.m.
During a hearing in Kent County Superior Court Tuesday, Judge Brian P. Stern expressed concern that the Central Coventry Fire District firefighters' union and newly elected Board of Directors have not spent adequate time in contract negotiations.
The foundering fire district has been in receivership for nearly a year, during which time, its taxpayers rejected two budgets and tax rates proposed by Special Master Richard Land. On Oct. 21, the Board is scheduled to present a feasible budget and tax rate to taxpayers during the district's annual budget meeting -- a task Judge Stern is worried won't be possible unless the union and Board conduct some meaningful negotiations - and soon.
According to Board President Fred Gralinski, the two groups have twice met briefly, but have not held extensive negotiations.
“There needs to be more than a couple of short meetings,” said Stern.
In addition to scheduling contract negotiations, Stern urged Board members to disseminate proposed budget figures to CCFD taxpayers as soon as possible and inquired how far along in the process they were currently.
Gralinski shared the Board's intent to hold several public informational meetings to voice their suggestions and findings prior to Oct. 21 -- one of which was held Tuesday evening and presented taxpayers with a PowerPoint entitled "Where Are We Now - What Are The Options", created by Board VP Marie Baker.
"Following our steps - listen, investigate, determine and act - we've investigated and we're now in the determination phase," said Gralinski. "A week before the meeting is when we'll probably make the decision as to what we deem necessary."
"Whatever the answer is, I want the taxpayers to have as much notice as possible for what they're voting on and what the repercussions of that will be," said Stern. "I know that the Board of Directors has a huge task, but I think after two meetings [Sept. 24, Oct. 2], I'm certainly going to require a report after and very well hold a hearing again to inform the court what is going to be going out to the taxpayers."
"That was our intention," said Gralinski. "I can assure you, Your Honor, that there won't be any surprises."
He explained that to continue running the district under the union's current collective bargaining agreement while gradually paying off the district’s debt, would cost approximately $7.2 million per year, nearly a million more than the budget rejected by taxpayers in March.
If taxpayers vote a third budget down on Oct. 21, a General Assembly bill-turned-law sponsored by Rep. Scott Guthrie (D-Coventry), would allow CCFD to operate under the previous year’s $5.2 million appropriation, however Stern noted that the figure is far less than what is needed.
"We've gotten to the point that even with the General Assembly change that will keep the $5.2 million levy the same, it appears clear that without renegotiated contracts, agreements and a way of doing business, the amount of money needed to run the district and pay off long-term debt is far in excess of that," he said. "The parties need to get together and attempt to work something out or it will be November 2012 all over again."
Stern ordered the two sides to meet for negotiations, with a court-appointed labor relations mediator if necessary, and also to address the nearly $517,000 claim filed by the union for unpaid wages and benefits.
“We’re realistic,” said union attorney Marc Gursky to Stern. “We know you’re not going to empty the treasury of the district. But this is a bill that is long overdue.”
In addition, Stern inquired as to whether the Board had yet prepared a contingency plan in the event that another budget is rejected.
"We have a plan for the worst," said Gralinski. "It's not finalized, but we have it. I admit our major energies were not put into the worst case scenario, but we do have one in place."
Baker's PowerPoint presentation Tuesday evening briefly mentioned hiring volunteers, using a Pay-on-Call method of staffing or hiring an outside EMT/rescue service as possible options but stated that the district's charter would need to be amended to create a different model of service.
Another Superior Court hearing is to be scheduled for late next week during which another status update from the Board will be heard.