During the latest Central Coventry Fire hearing Friday afternoon, Superior Court Judge Brian P. Stern made it abundantly clear that a final decision regarding the district's uncertain future must be made…and soon.
Updates from both Special Master Rick Land and Fire Chief Andy Baynes shed light on the foundering fire district's current status in regards to equipment, personnel and finances - all of which were deemed concerning by Judge Stern.
Chief Baynes said the status of the district's equipment is "marginal" and "not very reliable", citing the fact that both the district's reserve fire engine and rescue are currently out of service for repair as just one example.
"They're well beyond their actual shelf for operation," he said. "Nothing has changed other than us having to pour money into them to keep them up and running."
When asked about the district's contingency plan in the event that equipment breaks down, Baynes admitted that borrowing from neighboring districts is common practice, but CCFD's near inability to reciprocate, combined with budget cuts statewide, make the situation even more difficult.
"I don't have anything to loan anybody, so I'm sure I'm that poor neighbor that nobody wants to talk to," said Baynes. "It's a mutual aid issue. Also, everybody is in a similar state right now - not everyone has a spare truck they can loan. If I had to go out and borrow long term - that would be a problem - because I'm borrowing everyone else's, unfortunately, junk."
Baynes also summarized his staffing concerns, saying that by June, when four CCFD members become eligible to retire, the company could be brought down to 32 uniformed employees - down from 45 in October 2012.
"I don't have nearly enough and there are only so many hours I can allow someone to work without opening ourselves to licensure issues because of mistakes being made," said Chief Baynes. "We don't have enough people to bring in so we're rapidly going to get to the point where I won't be able to cycle through people fast enough to get them rested and refurbished before putting them back in."
Special Master Land presented Judge Stern with a summary of the district's finances, stating the district currently has $1.48 million in the bank collected through tax payments and rescue run recovery funds. He estimated that the district's weekly expenses average approximately $100,000 per week, which includes salaries, benefits and vehicle repairs, among other weekly necessities. When considering CCFD's various outstanding debts including $300,000 to the Town of Coventry and a minimum of $263,000 to Kent County Water Authority, Land stated that the district "certainly owes north of $1.5 million".
"Your honor, I'll just say it. The district is starting to flounder," said Land. "I think the chief's report is very telling about where we stand. We've been operating basically on life support, we are Band-Aiding everything we can Band-Aid, holding at bay creditors, holding at bay the union with their claims."
"We're also starting to bleed in certain areas." Land continued. "We've got new claims of unfair labor practices, new claims of violating the Open Meetings Act. The fact of the matter is, the problems are expanding but the solution is not forthcoming. I think the next real issue here is, what should next steps be and are we moving toward a formal liquidation? The resolution of that issue will help a lot of other things fall in line."
On behalf of the district's Board of Directors, Attorney Dave D'Agostino gave testimony highlighting the board's most recent plans to cut costs and streamline CCFD's financial books and records. Board members wish to discuss with Town officials the proposed implementation of a town-wide street lighting plan as Central Coventry taxpayers foot the bill for a large portion of the town's street lights. D'Agostino also shared the board's consideration of a fee-per-call style of emergency service as a cost-saving measure.
Despite the Board of Directors update, Judge Stern voiced his concern that he has not seen enough progress since the board was elected and charged with determining a contingency plan for the district.
"So Central Coventry Fire District when it closes may have the most beautiful books and records there are, but what I haven't heard is how does the board propose we get from the point where we are now to the next one?" said Judge Stern. "I'm very concerned in terms of the status of equipment and where we are with personnel, and I think it very true that we put band-aids while continuing to operate," Stern continued. I think we've identified the issue in terms of whether to liquidate and we now have to answer to that question."
Before adjourning, Judge Stern ordered a hearing to allow a final opportunity for parties to speak to the proposal of liquidating the fire district. All pleadings must be submitted to Judge Stern by Friday, Jan. 31 in order to be heard during the Feb. 5 hearing at 2 p.m. in Kent County Court.
"I will review any pleadings and schedule for a decision on the issue of liquidation," said Stern. "This decision is critical for where we go next in the case itself and I think at this point we have to call the question. I don't want to see anyone wasting their time on things going forward, I don't want to see more issues that may or may not come true. We need to deal with this. We need to deal with this once and for all."