Earlier this year, a judge ordered the liquidation of the fire district after it went bankrupt. The order mandates that the district close by May 16. Layoffs notices have already been sent to the district's 44 firefighters and four administrators.
A Senate committee earlier this month approved a bill that would establish a budget commission to save the district, according to WJAR-TV.
The Coventry Citizen’s Taskforce, however, said state control isn't the answer. Below is a news release from the taskforce.
The Coventry Citizen’s Taskforce, a group working to fix the beleaguered Central Coventry Fire District board (CCFD) today warned legislators of the limitations of placing fire districts under state control.
Two bills currently working their way through the General Assembly, S2778 and H7994, would permit fire districts to be placed under state management through the FSA, or Financial Stability Act, which previously applied only to cities and towns.
Fred Gralinski, former chairman of the Taskforce, said the problems facing most fire districts in Rhode Island were “not simply management issues, but structural issues that have to be dealt with.
“Poor management was certainly an issue with the CCFD, but the larger problems were structural.
“Because of quickly escalating costs related to purchase of unneeded equipment and an overly-generous union contract, the CCFD was forced to borrow heavily and significantly increase taxes just to stay even. In this kind of situation, unless changes are made in personnel practices, benefits, and purchasing practices, not a whole lot of progress can be made,” Gralinski said.
“My fear is that, as happened in Woonsocket, the Budget Commission will simply continue to penalize taxpayers and avoid coming to grips with the things that are driving costs higher.
“But let’s be real about what is happening in Central Coventry in particular. All the debate is being fueled over the fact that with liquidation, a union contract will be deemed null and void. The union contract in CCFD, negotiated by a Board beholden to the firefighters union, gave away the store. This is mostly about a union trying to protect its turf.
“In a town in which 13% of the residents receive social security and 29% of the students receive subsidized lunches, increased staffing requirements caused overtime to nearly double and payments for daily clothing, sick, personal and vacation days, incentive pay, holiday pay, out-of-rank pay, collateral pay, longevity bonuses and a post-employment savings plan created a 37% increase in compensation in the last three years.
“There is not a city or town in Rhode Island, or a fire district, that can long survive financially when compensation is increasing at a 30% pace, and tax increases of 20-30% become commonplace,” said Gralinski.
“What the legislation ought to focus on is not keeping the CCFD above water in its current near-terminal condition, but in legislating the kinds of things that can solve the problem. Require annual financial audits. Place a 4% tax levy ceiling in place. Prohibit supplementary taxes. And ensure that fire district boards are not controlled by small groups representing big special interests.
“If this legislation passes, and given the track record of state Budget Commissions in the past, I predict the result will be higher taxes and little courageous action to really fix the problems. Months and years from now it will be far more than Central Coventry Fire District the state will have to deal with,” Gralinski said.