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Superior Court Judge Stern Orders Final Hearing to Decide CCFD's Fate

After a 3-hour hearing on Thursday, Judge Brian Stern moved to allow CCFD and Town officials a final opportunity to suggest a plan that may save the fire district from liquidation.

 

An emergency hearing was held at Kent County Superior Court on Thursday afternoon to address CCFD Special Master Richard Land's submission of an Emergency Petition to Authorize Liquidation of the foundering fire district following the rejection of his proposed 2012-2013 budget and tax levy on Monday.

Dozens of Central Coventry Fire personnel were present in front of Superior Court Judge Brian P. Stern, along with taxpayers, fire officials from the town's additional three fire districts, Police Chief Bryan Volpe, Town Manager Tom Hoover, Town Council President Gary Cote, state legislators and legal representation for all entities involved. 

After summarizing his progress as Special Master and the outcome of Monday's budget meeting, Land told Judge Stern that the district has approximately $330,000 left in the bank and with a weekly operating budget of about $130,000, current operations can only be sustained for a few more weeks. When asked by Judge Stern what the intent was of his proposed budget, Land described his intentions of bridging the gap between this year and the next tax cycle, restructuring the firefighters' collective bargaining agreement and maintaining consistency with accurate tax rates - all goals that would enable him to develop a 5-year plan to repay the district's $2.2 million deficit incurred over the past several years.

"I want to be clear with the court and the voters - I told people at both the December and February meetings, that if a budget didn't pass, I couldn't recommend to this court in good faith that we continue to operate because we'd be doing so without a balanced budget," said Land. "Regrettably, the voters spoke and didn't pass the budget."

Land shared with the court the impact that the proposed tax increase would have, using a $100,000 home as an example. Using the former residential tax rate of $1.82 per thousand, a bill would be $182. A 42 percent increase to that would result in about $76 more annually - less than $20 per quarter. 

"I understand it's hard times and I understand that people are struggling, but when you're making the decision between having fire and emergency services readily available versus not, $20 per quarter is hardly a good reason to say that you don't need them," he said. 

It was noted by several speakers during the hearing, including Land, that a contributing factor in the rejection of the budget is thought to have been the frequent dissemination of misinformation and inaccurate figures through published advertisements and propaganda by those in opposition of moving the district forward.

"Part of the problem I think we had here is that information was sent out to people that wasn't necessarily accurate," said Land. "You would hope that the correct information would carry the day, but my concern is that sometimes people are swayed by information, particularly from a legislator on official state letterhead," Land continued, in reference to a letter sent by Rep. Patricia Morgan to her constituents in January that has been considered inaccurate and misleading by several parties.

"At this point with the budget being rejected and a limited amount of cash on hand, I don't believe I can continue to operate this district for very much longer," Land continued. "My concern is that this is a serious public safety issue. You have representatives from the other town fire districts in the room and I won't speak for them, but when you take away 10 firefighters per shift and five stations, leaving all fire and emergency services in the town to three other stations, you're leaving a huge gap in the system. From what I've been told, within 72 hours, the strain on the other districts will be unbearable and will lead to a breakdown in the system."

Representatives from Hopkins Hill and Coventry fire districts, Council President Gary Cote, along with CCFD Chief Andy Baynes, Captain Dave Gorman and Battalion Chief Scott Murray agreed with Land's public safety concern, all mentioning that not only Central Coventry residents would suffer if the fire district is shut down, but residents of neighboring districts and their fire/emergency personnel as well.

"Central Coventry Fire District provides an irreplaceable service and there's no expectation that the other districts can cover completely if this liquidation is allowed to go forward," said Cote. "It will not only put Central Coventry at risk, but also those in the other districts. From my standpoint, the most important aspect is public safety."

"The financial aspect of this issue is important, but not the sole driving force," said Judge Stern to Cote. "I appreciate your bluntness, that's what I'm trying to get my hands around."

Land went on to ask Judge Stern for one more chance to educate voters and arrange an opportunity for more CCFD taxpayers to vote on the budget and tax rate. 

"At this point, I would ask the court that we have one more bite at the apple here," he said. "I would like the court to consider authorizing me to go ahead with shutting the district down, but in the meantime while I'm developing that process, I would like another opportunity to speak to the voters and hold an all-day referendum providing we have a meeting one night, get whatever information we can out to them and then give them the ability to vote over the entire next day. This would let us see if we can get more voters out there and more people understanding the issues and hopefully present and adopt the budget that will allow this district to continue on. I think the two things can be done simultaneously."

Apart from any past mismanagement within the district, another more recent concern, touched upon by CCFD firefighters' representation, Attorney Marc Gursky, was the voting process during Monday's meeting, which he described as "very disturbing". Gursky explained that after reviewing ballots and voter lists, it was discovered that 487 voters signed in using their home addresses, yet only 390 were simultaneously marked off on a qualified resident voter list and given paper bracelets to distinguish them as eligible to vote. He also stated that 432 eligible ballots were submitted - a significantly higher figure than the number of bracelets that were collected from voters after turning their ballots in. Apart from these discrepancies, it was determined on Thursday morning that at least 12 individuals who signed in as eligible voters do not reside in the Central Coventry district.

"Your Honor, you clearly have the authority to authorize a 'redo' as I'll put it - and there were a lot of problems with this vote," he said. "Because of that, I will join Mr. Land in requesting that you exercise that authority and hopefully the second time around might be a little smoother." 

During additional commentary, residents Charles Vacca, Leo Blais, and Linda Bennett, along with CCFD Board President Joe Bonn and Board member Marie Fisher also requested that Judge Stern consider giving Land one last opportunity to keep the district operational for the benefit of all Coventry residents. Businessman John Assalone, who has frequently spoken against many administrative decisions made by members of the district and union, said he feels the liquidation process should be started unless those involved can present productive proposals to save the district substantial money going forward.

"Does this court believe that the majority of voters made the incorrect or correct decisions? That's not the court's role. It is our role to determine the next appropriate step," said Judge Stern following the final remarks from members of the gallery. "On one hand, the taxpayers have spoken - on the other hand, this is a significant public safety issue. It would be easy to say, 'it is what it is' and that the town and district will need to figure their problem out, but that's where equity comes into play."

"We will meet again tomorrow at 1 p.m. and I want to hear any additional proposals aside from those heard today," Judge Stern continued. "I would prefer that parties, even if they haven't gotten along before, would come to the table with several equitable solutions that people can stand behind. Unfortunately, until there is an emergency, people tend to wait. I want to be absolutely clear - the emergency is here. Tomorrow is a very important day and and within 24 hours, this court needs to make a decision to close down, liquidate or go to an alternative remedy."

Fire and town officials, along with legal counsel made plans to meet Thursday evening and/or Friday morning to discuss any and all possible options that may save Central Coventry Fire District from liquidation.

"Please take this seriously, I am terribly concerned about what the outcome may be, although it may be unavoidable. I hope that we can work through the issue in some way tomorrow and resolve the uncertainty," Judge Stern went on to say before court was adjourned.

Those planning on attending Friday's hearing should ask a member of security upon entering Kent County Superior Court (222 Quaker Ln., Warwick) which courtroom the hearing will be held in, as one had not been confirmed on Thursday.

coventry voter-Jay February 15, 2013 at 04:47 PM
@Just Me I was a FF in Ct when I got out of the service. Did that for 7 years part time while getting my degree . Started a medical related business after college. Sold it. Moved to RI Started another medial related business that I still run and own today. I have a great deal of experience in the medical testing field. I had a minor in business/accounting. Imp a numbers guy and the CCFD numbers suck
Landman February 15, 2013 at 04:48 PM
I agree that finger pointing or bashing fire fighters or the board is not productive. My earlier point on bankruptcy wasn't to imply that they should necessarily go bankrupt, but they need to deal with reality. A comprehensive LONG TERM plan need to be presented that maps out a sound future and seeks to reduce current waste in EVERY ASPECT. While my insurance may go up, I have the CHOICE to seek a competitive rate from a company that is able to deliver a fair product at a fair price. A 42% increase isn't what I am worried about, it's about the increase next year and the year after that. Nothing ever goes down if we haven't noticed. It's about figuring out a way to work within a budget as opposed to just asking for more funds to fix the problem. What is the reduction plan after the debts get paid? What's the 5-10 year expenditure outlook? Is the department capable of keeping up with long term equipment needs or payroll obligations or do they need more money? I would rather Pay a 100% increase this year if it meant settling the debt service (I hate paying interest), bringing the rates back down next year and we had a long term SUSTAINABLE PLAN. What will likely happen is the wasteful debt will get paid over many years and rates will continue to rise to pay for new equipment and salaries because this isn't factored in long term plan. Perhaps the real threat of bankruptcy is what it takes to make the real hard choices or create a well conceived plan...
R February 15, 2013 at 04:48 PM
Coventry voter jay - not yet! And hopefully not at all. It is the point that business does not deal directly with people's lives and property in times of emergency.
Just Me February 15, 2013 at 04:50 PM
Again look at the 2.4 million dollar error.... It was not the firefighters who created it.
Just Me February 15, 2013 at 04:54 PM
I guess a call to the Special Master would be your best bet, or go to court today and see what happens.
RS February 15, 2013 at 04:54 PM
Jay thats great except that the cost is there whether the truck runs or not. In the grande scheme of things a stop at the market on the way back from a call doesn't really cost anything.
RS February 15, 2013 at 04:58 PM
So with the possibility of losing fire and rescue service and a large deficit, your biggest concern is coffee runs???? Seriously????? You really do need to get your priorities straight.
Just Me February 15, 2013 at 05:06 PM
I guess $$$$ are more important than property and lives to some... and as far as calling them losers, it may be one of those losers who saves you or your family member.
Just Me February 15, 2013 at 05:14 PM
Justin the contracts handed out are comparable to any other job of this nature. Do you think Dr's, Lawyers, Nurses, Mechanics, or any other jobs make to much? These firefighters have saved lives, and have made a difference in many peoples lives. Its sad they have to be attacked for errors they did not make and actually asked for an audit to help find the problem. They are here to serve and protect property and life, and they do it daily. I know for a fact some private companies make more than they do and they only provide EMS.
Landman February 15, 2013 at 05:16 PM
And to the members of the board...As a tax payer I don't blame you. I believe you when you say you didn't know about the shortfall. I believe you when you say you did not know that the rates were too low. However, it happened on your watch, like it or not. Many a leader has had to step down for the actions of their subordinates or for factors outside their direct control. This happens in our military, government and private organizations alike. They do this not to accept blame or proclaim guilt; they do it to allow their organizations the ability to mend their wounds and move forward with actions that will help solve the problems that lie ahead. True leaders know that sacrificing ones own pride to allow for the reconstruction of trust among the masses is in the faith of good public service. Leadership by definition is a characteristic of making hard and undesirable choices for the betterment a larger goal. The public needs to trust that the Board, Department, and Town will not utilize their hard earned money in a fashion that will lead us back to another mess. If the goal is to save the department the the board should seriously consider resigning as a sign that the system is truly willing to change and sacrifice in the face of adversity. While I don't personally agree with the boards dismissal, I can't vilify my fellow taxpayer calling for a change in the board in the interest of rebuilding TRUST.
Tulia February 15, 2013 at 05:35 PM
I wish this forum would start addressing the truth,instead of pointing fingers at Firefighters and Property Tax Payers. If I run my company and home with a 2.2 million deficit you all know damn well, I or anyone else who owns a Business or Home would be out on the street with no bail out. Lets get real here , we can not continue to bail mismanaged Business at any level.CCFD is and was a business whether you see or not.The Question still not answered is why has no one been held Accountable!
Justin Cider February 15, 2013 at 05:50 PM
Get real you guys! "Risk their lives every day" When is the last time a Coventry Fire fighter died on the job?......NEVER!!!!!!
CoventryForward13 February 15, 2013 at 06:01 PM
Justin Cider - You have made a reprehensible comment. It would take a Coventry firefighter losing his life for you to pay them respect? You are a very poor excuse for a human being. You just sank to a new level. With a statement like that, you proved that you bring no value to finding a solution to the issue. Your comments are childish and rude. It's time you take your ball and go home.
Justin Cider February 15, 2013 at 06:10 PM
3.9 milion dollar budget in 2006/5.95 in 2010-65% increase in 5 years 39 full timers in 2006/ 46 in 2010-18% in 5 years Residential rate was 1.5 per thousand in 2006/ 1.82 in 2010-20% in 5 years. TIME TO LIQUIDATE!!!!!!
reeves brandon February 15, 2013 at 08:05 PM
the people have lost trust that the elected leaders and unions care about costs..clearly the budget was completely out of control.some one wasnt paying attention. The employees of CCFD need take the risk away from taxpayers by ending any open ended obligations and reduce current costs more than they have proposed otherwise there is no need for another meeting.
Lauren Costa (Editor) February 15, 2013 at 09:09 PM
NoBama, "Pink vehicles" as in the Pink Heals firetruck housed at Station 4? I'm only responding to this because it's the last comment in the thread at the moment, but I've explained countless times that the Pink Heals vehicles have nothing to do with CCFD on any financial level. The truck was donated and is painted, operated, fueled and insured though the Pink Heals organization and its donations. Central Coventry just stores it on-site at the Arnold Rd. station.
NoBama February 15, 2013 at 09:10 PM
Pink vehicles, who pays for the maintenance, fuel, driver and insurance for these vehicles ? Mr. Kettle you need to grow some big ones, I over heard the pension sucking former fireman Scott Guthrie threaten you. You better not say anything, Sit down and shut up or I will run against you next time. And you did. GUTLESS!! uhuhhojhojhioh!
NoBama February 15, 2013 at 09:16 PM
Their union rep behavioral actions & reputations makes a statement,loud mouth bully.! Their are employees of the department who won't say anything because of him, they don't want him =.
Richard Flint February 15, 2013 at 10:31 PM
I plead for a CCFD with less staffing (manhours not necessarily men) and less trucks----20 percent less!.....something we can afford and something we all need. Save CCFD, What is the issue?
CB February 15, 2013 at 11:24 PM
I work long hours in the private sector. I never leave my job to get coffee or lunch.I am lucky if I am able to take my thirty minute UNPAID lunch. I have a very large health insurance payment every week and a very large copayment for any services. I work hard for my money and live In the CCFD. I think it is high time that we crunch numbers, reduce staff, raise health premiums, or if unable to make this situation work, then close CCFD. Consolidation of redundant services needs to become the new normal in Coventry.
CCM February 15, 2013 at 11:29 PM
Why not look to other cities/towns to see what works and consolidate to one department like neighboring cities (Warwick, Cranston, providence) ?everyone pays their tax in their real estate taxes... Lets face it middle class families that moved into the many new developments like myself will vacate immediately if the fire department is limited. I do not live in central Coventry district but know the district that serves me will have to assist central Coventry. I will leave and move to Warwick!
NoBama February 15, 2013 at 11:45 PM
CCM .Providence F.D had a Captain making $77000.00, when he retired he is currently making $199000.00 . Providence neighboring City and Town will stop giving assistance shortly, it is to expensive. Providence doesn't work !!!
Cyclist February 16, 2013 at 12:00 AM
Let's get real. The CCFD is out of control. It is a good old boys club taking care of each other. We have to wake up in this district and LIQUIDATE. Do not let these winers change your mind. Wasted money again. Risking their lives?? Let's get real people. Look at the physical condition of some of these guys!!! So yes they are risking their lives. As far as having to have a second job being a fireman, really??? This is another way to make us feel sorry for the poor fireman. They have the opportunity to have a second business because of their hours. We need to consolidate into one fire department in this town. Then there will be a need for only one chief. As far as the board members, they should be allowed to be retired fireman or spouses of fireman, therefore avoiding the look of any misdoings. We do not need all the stations we have. Stop hanging out in chairs in front of the station sunning yourselves while cooking on the grill. It just doesn't look good. As far as shopping in the firetruck...unacceptable in my opinion. I do not do my grocery shopping on company time in a company vehicle. What??? These guys can't figure out what they want to have for lunch until they all get together and talk about it??
RS February 16, 2013 at 12:06 AM
Yup, thats Providence. Those pensions were out of control because select people were given deals by the Mayor. It isn't what the average Firefighter got. It's all public info...if you watched the news or heaven forbid, did some research you'll see not everyone got those 5% COLAs
Realistic voter February 16, 2013 at 12:34 AM
Gerbil...I mean Gervis how is FLA??
Realistic voter February 16, 2013 at 12:37 AM
Now people that is a showing of stupidity Thanks Richard Flint.. One of the most stupid comments yet!~!!
Realistic voter February 16, 2013 at 12:39 AM
CB....You chose your job! What do you have for an education??
coventry voter-Jay February 16, 2013 at 01:26 PM
See my predictions from thursday? . BAZINGA
Justin Cider February 16, 2013 at 04:10 PM
I thought this only happens in third world countries that when you have a vote the results are taken away from you if those results aren't what is wanted by the government. Welcome to our third world town. What a disgrace. Why bother ever voting again if judges like this will throw out the results.
Just Me February 16, 2013 at 05:58 PM
Tainted vote??? more votes than registered voters ? and thats fair ?

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