James T. Higgins, At Large
Manuel N. DaCosta District 1
Charles D. Wilk, District 4
E Craig Dwyer, District 2
Mia A. Ackerman, District 5
Board of Licensing, Vice-Chair
Council President, Pro-Tem
Peter J. Bradley, District 3
Bruce A. Lemois, At-Large
Board of Licensing Chair
MINUTES OF THE SPECIAL MEETING OF THE CUMBERLAND TOWN COUNCIL
TUESDAY, AUGUST 7, 2012 AT 7:30 P.M.
CUMBERLAND TOWN HALL – EVERETT “MOE” BONNER, JR. COUNCIL CHAMBERS
45 BROAD STREET, CUMBERLAND
President Higgins, Councilors Lemois, Dwyer, DaCosta, Wilk, and Bradley
Also present Mayor Daniel J. McKee, Town Solicitor Thomas E. Hefner and Town Clerk Sandra Giovanelli.
A. ORDINANCES FOR PUBLIC HEARING:
1. #12-15 – An ordinance in Amendment of the Zoning Ordinance of the Town of Cumberland – Article 6 entitled Supplementary Regulations (last tabled from July 18, 2012)
Solicitor Hefner stated that it was the consensus of the Council at the last meeting that they wanted the Ordinance does the same way as in the past which would show what language is being stricken and what new language is being added. He further explained that this change came about because several people wanted to put in swimming pools on smaller lots; when the Zoning Ordinance was amended several years ago, a lot of dimensional areas were changed. This amendment reduces the square footage from 10,000 square feet to 6,000 square feet for an accessory use, and particularly for a swimming pool, it allows the pool to be put with a six foot side and rear lot line. He stated that the Planning Board felt it was in the Town’s best interest to do this; and the Administration felt that it is in the best interest of residents having smaller lots. Both he and the Building Official feel it is a fair way to address the problems some residents have experienced.
Public hearing was opened at 7:40 p.m.
There was no one wishing to speak in favor of or against this Amendment.
Public hearing was closed at 7:41 p.m.
Councilor Wilk asked for the rationale of reducing the square footage from 10,000 to 6,000. He asked if this was so residents would be able to put up garages. He noted that the Amendment refers to off-street parking and attached private garage.
Solicitor Hefner responded that his was geared to swimming pools; he noted that 99.9% of the time this would not apply to a garage because with a 6,000 square foot lot and the normal square footage of a house, the normal setbacks would apply to a garage, not six feet. The setback requirements for side and rear would differ by whatever zone the home is in—the smallest one is 20 feet.
President Higgins noted that the six foot setbacks only apply to swimming pools, and that off-street parking and attached private garages are exempt from this Amendment.
MOTION BY COUNCILOR LEMOIS, SECONDED BY COUNCILOR DACOSTA AND IT IS UNANIMOUSLY VOTED TO APPROVE BY A ROLL CALL VOTE. VOTE 6/0
A. LICENSES - HAWKER’S LICENSE:
1. An application for a Hawker’s License from Mark Matarazzo of Dean’s Concessions for Cumberlandfest
President Higgins confirmed with the Town Clerk that everything was in order.
Public hearing was opened at 7:44 p.m.
There was no one wishing to speak in favor of or against this license.
Public hearing was closed at 7:45 p.m.
MOTION BY COUNCILOR LEMOIS, SECONDED BY COUNCILOR DACOSTA AND IT IS UNANIMOUSLY VOTED TO APPROVE. VOTE 6/0
Councilor Bradley recused himself.
Mayor McKee informed that he would not be going towards a bond in November; they are not yet ready for that step as they are still awaiting further information. He is suggesting a “fewer and newer” strategy, which is predicated on the four principles he discussed at the last meeting—public safety, efficiency strategies, protecting firefighters’ jobs, and making sure that the fire districts operate under the current tax cap. He stated that what they would be discussing tonight is the vision of a comprehensive Cumberland public safety plan. He explained he would be speaking regarding the non-responsiveness of the various fire districts, as well as some obstructive behavior, which is why they do not have some of the information needed for tonight. Additionally, he would be speaking with regard to potential locations and the reasons why it would make sense to use Town property. He also stated that Don Jacobs would be giving an overview of where he stands on his report.
The Mayor stated that there has been a history of non-responsiveness on the part of the fire districts. There was a non-binding vote in 1998 to consolidate the fire districts; in 2007 he sent a letter to all fire districts asking them to voluntarily cap their taxes as the community has, and he did not receive one response to his letter. In Spring 2010 he called all the Chiefs and Commissioners for a meeting, and offered the Town’s assistance in terms of delivering a final product of one unified district. North Cumberland responded to that request with a 17 percent tax increase for its district a few months later. In November 2010, there was a binding vote mandating that the Town Council approve a plan for one fire department. In 2011, the Town requested three years of audits from the districts in order to start preparing financial strategies; not one district responded. Also in 2011, the council approved a Resolution asking the General Assembly to pass an Act making the local districts comply with the State tax cap. Representative McLaughlin presented that legislation, and all of the districts spoke against it. In April 2012 Don Jacobs met with all the Commission Chairs, and he asked Mr. Jacobs to bring back the plan they had been working on to bring it forward to the Town Council. There was again no response. In 2012, Cumberland Hill responded with a 44 percent tax increase to the commercial properties in its district. Mayor McKee stated that this clearly shows that they were not listening to what the voters asked for in 2010. Representative McLaughlin again brought forward proposed legislation in this session, and again the district leaderships came down to testify against doing that. He does not believe this to be in the best interests of any taxpayer. On May 30, 2012 he again sent a letter to all Commissioners requesting that he be provided with response times as well as a consolidation plan so that he could bring forward a completed project to the Town Council and include any plan they had been working on. He set a July 1st deadline for their response—there were no responses. He stated that there has never been an acknowledgement by the districts that the Town Council has a fiduciary responsibility to approve a plan that would bring the Town to a one district, one tax, one chief strategy. Tonight he planned to increase the concept of a Town-wide public safety strategy. He showed a Town map showing the Town Council Districts to illustrate where the population is. Also noted on the map were the current fire stations, as well as the police station and rescue site. At the moment, available data shows that as of 2012, Valley Falls has a budget of $1,650,000; Cumberland has $1,650,000; North Cumberland’s budget is just under $1.9 million; and Cumberland Hill of $2 million. This shows that if you were starting from scratch, the fire stations would not be placed where they are currently. What they are proposing is a public safety center in the middle of the Town, and by moving some districts and eliminating another, you would save the taxpayers approximately $2 million. That is the overall strategy, and this plan alone will lower the cost of fire safety in the Town by 28 percent, it will also through attrition keep all current firefighters employed, and will provide significant public safety coverage. They are in need of the response times to complete the report by the end of September.
President Higgins asked if the response times were a public record.
Mayor McKee responded that Mr. Jacobs would be responding to that. He stated that it makes a lot of sense to use some Town property in this mix; it does not go against his commitment of securing open space—he has secured over 425 acres of open space during his administration at no cost to the Town; if a few acres are used, the Town is still far ahead in protecting the landscape of the community. Additionally, the Town did not have to borrow the $5 million bond that was voted for seven or eight years ago because the land was brought in at no cost.
Don Jacobs informed that the purpose of this study was to try to improve the provision of fire services in the community. They were asked to respond to the feasibility of establishing one fire operating entity. There have been previous attempts and studies with respect to improving fire services, but obviously nothing has changed as a result. There have been improvements, such as modifications to try to communicate better, but the bottom line is that they have not resulted in an improvement has to how public safety services are being managed and planned. This issue is played out in a number of different ways—the adequacy of resources pertaining to the utilization of staffing, the utilization of apparatus, the utilization of facilities, or the utilization of the funds that it costs to provide the services. What all these perspectives share in common is the need for public safety to be better managed. Early on in the study, it became very clear and apparent that for them to adequately look at fire services, they needed to look at other aspects of public safety services. What this is about today is establishing a public safety plan consisting of all components that make up public safety services. They have completed what they were initially asked to do—to consider, review, evaluate and assess the feasibility of forming one operating entity. One operating entity makes sense for many reasons, and will shortly provide a detailed report focusing on the adequacy of resources as they relate specifically to forming one operating entity as well as the operational and administrative aspects of providing those services. They have reviewed facilities, staffing, apparatus, equipment, the use of technology, and all aspects of administration, both from a recruitment standpoint, compensation standpoint, training standpoint, and human resources administration. The ultimate conclusion is that one operating entity makes all the sense in the world. The other thing that became clear to them from the beginning was that the current four station configuration does not make sense to them—it just is not the most efficient or effective or best way to provide public safety services. One of the glaring weaknesses noticed was that the facilities are inadequate. They have recommended a three station configuration. They believe this makes sense from a staffing standpoint, a response time or safety standpoint, as well as from the utilization of facilities. Three stations will be the most effective way to provide public safety services for both fire and EMS as well as police. The overall staffing in the fire departments is adequate. What they are recommending is that the organizational structure be reconfigured so that essentially the fire services would be organized along functional lines of service. There would be someone responsible for fire marshal services, training services, EMS services, and operational services, which would enable the fire chief to function as a manager of the department. Consolidating the stations will result in more efficient, more effective response times throughout the community and will also enable the fire department to utilize its apparatus more efficiently. One significant issue identified was the lack of utilization on a regular basis of the aerial truck. Creating three stations will enable the fire department to go from four engine companies to three engine companies and a ladder company, so that the ladder apparatus will be staffed on a regular ongoing basis and the department will not have to rely on call or auxiliary staff personnel to staff that particular vital piece of apparatus. He gave a handout to the Council with their recommendations regarding the organizational structure which reflects his previous remarks. The fire department should be organized along functional lines consistent with a three station configuration. There would be a fire marshal, training coordinator, EMS coordinator, and an operations function position that would be the primary responsibility of the assistant or deputy fire chief. This structure will enable the fire department to function very effectively and staff the apparatus required to man the three facilities. One of the obstacles they were told about from the very beginning was the financial aspect of providing fire services as a reason why there has not been a change. It is their conclusion that as a result of establishing three fire stations and utilizing the apparatus consistent with those three stations, the end result from a financial standpoint would be less cost to the taxpayers and a more efficient utilization of resources. Mr. Jacob stated that in order to complete their analysis, they need to have the statistical information showing what impact this would have with regard to response time or the provision of service both from an EMS standpoint as well as a fire standpoint. They have retained an individual to work with them using the Geographic Information Software to enable them to do their own analysis to help them identify the optimal three locations. This should be completed in time for the mid-September Council meeting.
President Higgins asked again whether the response times are public records.
Mr. Jacobs responded that unfortunately the software that the fire departments use is not able to produce the information. It is public records, but it is not organized in a format that would be helpful.
President Higgins questioned whether the fire departments kept a record of response times—he was surprised that they did not.
Mr. Jacobs responded that he did not know if they did; they have not been provided with this information despite several requests. So at this point, they will be gathering their own information.
President Higgins noted that dispatch would be able to provide the number of calls.
Mr. Jacobs responded that that was correct, but the issue really pertains to out of district responses.—which is when there is a call for service and an apparatus is dispatched from another district. This is where the breakdown occurs with regard to tracking response times.
President Higgins noted that the handout listed various equipment at each station; he asked if that was the existing equipment, which Mr. Jacobs confirmed that it was. He asked various other questions regarding the equipment.
Councilor Wilk noted that there are 59 individuals currently working for the various districts. He asked how it would be determined as to which employee went where. He asked whether it would require testing, or be based on seniority.
Mr. Jacobs stated that this is just an initial representation and subject to change; it is a rough profile of how it would be distributed based on what there is today. It would be decided by the Fire Chief how he would want to manage; this is just their recommendations. He confirmed that all positions included in their recommendation would be filled by those already employed, including the Chief’s position.
President Higgins noted that there are currently three chiefs, and two assistant chiefs. He asked if the new chief would come from the three existing chiefs.
Mr. Jacobs stated that there would only be one chief’s position, but a decision would have to be made about filling it. He noted that the chart included a job description and minimum qualifications for each position. He stated that they would need to open it up for opportunities for those within the department to apply for the various positions. He noted that some of the positions do not currently exist, such as a full-time training coordinator. In summation, he stated that he needed to collect the data necessary to recommend a definitive structure as to how these three stations should be located.
Mayor McKee stated that under the plan they are suggesting, there would be one unified independent district and the jobs would be protected. He noted that he had asked Chief John Desmarais to spearhead this plan as it moves forward.
Police Chief John Desmarais stated that he had listed deficiencies in the police building and rescue building at the last meeting. The citizens of Cumberland deserve a more efficient way of service for public safety. The Council is aware of the deficiencies of the police building, and they are aware of the risk management issues that he faces. He does not want a new building, he needs a new building. He asks for it to move forward and work more efficiently than they can now. He is willing to work in conjunction with the rescue and fire departments to deliver public safety in a way the citizens deserve. This new public safety center makes sense. It could be a center with the police chief, fire chief, and rescue director in one building. There would be shared office space with a training facility. It could have a community room for organizations to meet in. There could be an emergency operations center (which is currently on the second floor). Public safety needs to be more efficient, and they are willing to do it with the cooperation of the Council and the residents. The Town must move forward as one. He will do his best to get this done for the citizens of Cumberland.
Rescue Director Sean Thompson stated that this needs to become a collaboration. There are three great services in the Town. He believes that with a deployment strategy of study, the best location for the north station could be determined. He thinks this strategy would decrease response times, not only on the rescue side but the fire side as well. Moving forward, the collaboration needs to start now. They work well together now, but they could work more efficiently together.
Mayor McKee noted that if this is the model the Town will be moving forward on, then there are certain legal issues that need to be dealt with and the options the Town would have in that space. Additionally, the other issue is the financial ability of the community and how to work through the financial issues that have to do with the process. Solicitor Hefner would be dealing with the legal issues. He also noted that there is not yet a final report, but that does not mean that there is no progress in terms of what is possible here. The more information generated for the public the more informed they would be; he also noted that there will be several public hearings as they come up to the point of the final plan.
Solicitor Thomas Hefner asked the Council to imagine that he came before them asking to make four departments out of the current Police Department; they would think it was crazy. Compare that to currently have four fire districts—that does not make any sense either. Eighty percent of the voters agreed to the consolidation, and it specifically said with input from, amongst others, the stakeholders in the four fire districts. The voters directed the Town to find an alternative to what is already there. In his opinion the fairest way is to consolidate. The districts, if they cooperate, would be made into one. This would be done through the General Assembly. This works the best because there are existing employees that will be kept, existing equipment, and at least one building as being useful as the southern facility. Another alternative would be to have a municipal department. Years ago, North Smithfield attempted to do this, but there were huge problems for them. It required new buildings, new equipment, and new employees. To accomplish the goal as he sees it, the police chief, the rescue director, and if the consolidation takes place, the fire chief must be on board and the districts must be consolidated into one, with a central location in the Chapel Four Corners area, a northern location near the North Cumberland Middle School, and the southern location at the current Valley Falls station. Each fire district has the power to tax, to own their own property, etc., so each district that is cooperating must first agree to the merger, then the General Assembly must consolidate those districts into one. This is what the voters wanted; it makes no sense to have four fire departments within Cumberland.
Councilor Wilk asked about those districts not cooperating. Solicitor Hefner explained that when North Smithfield wanted to consolidate their fire districts, they believed they could hire whomever they wanted to file the positions. The Primrose Fire Station believed that they had first right to the jobs available. This caused major issues.
Councilor Wilk wanted to be sure that those in the Cumberland fire districts that were not cooperating would be in danger of losing their jobs.
President Higgins explained that those not cooperating were the commissioners of the districts, not the rank and file.
Solicitor Hefner stated that in a perfect world, everyone comes together and keeps their jobs, and fire safety is improved in the process. There is no need for four chiefs or assistant chiefs, or all those commissioners. He explained what could happen to a district if it did not wish to take part in the consolidation. He stated that when they go to get their budget approved, no one would be voting; their charter could be revoked; he asked why there would be a need for another fire district when there is would already be a consolidation of three, and the whole town could be covered by it.
President Higgins noted that the residents voted for one district, and one rate. He also noted that the one district not cooperating had the biggest budget, but the lowest tax rate.
Solicitor Hefner ended by stating that the voters want this, he thought the firefighters wanted it because they know that they will be keeping their jobs, and efficiency and public safety will be improved. He strongly believes that these four districts must work together, and the Council has a duty to go forward and make sure it gets done.
Mayor McKee stated that he would not support any plan that would not allow all firefighters to retain their jobs. The sooner this is pulled together the sooner they could plan for the attrition. The lowest per capita cost in the Town is in Valley Falls, at $142 per person. The highest are in North Cumberland at $307 and Cumberland Hill at $265 per person. What will happen when three are three budgets instead of four, the per capita cost would drop to $208, so some districts would see a decrease in their fire taxes. On the finance issues, the advantage is that an independent district strategy will protect the jobs of the current workers. Projecting the jobs is a high priority. Another reason for an independent strategy is savings—at least $1.5 million; a portion of those savings could be used for building new stations. A new charter would be required for the new entity. The goal is to create something that is in the best interest of the people of the Town of Cumberland, not in the best interest of any one district. Over the last 6 years, the Town has retired, on average, a little less than $4 million in debt each year, and has only borrowed $4 million. In 2014, the Town will retire an entire bond that is currently costing $500,000 a year. By 2018, the Town will retire another $1 million of annual payments on principal alone. This project will probably not impact the budget before Fiscal 2016 in terms of taxes. Taxes can be controlled based on the retirement of debt in the upcoming years. It will take a year of planning, and a year of construction, and he does not anticipate that it will impact the local tax rate until 2018; the $500,000 being retired in 2014 would be reserved, and then the $1 million being retired in 2018 would be added to it. It is time to put public safety as a top priority; the schools have been invested in, and now it is time to step forward in providing the level of public safety this community deserves.
Councilor Wilk asked if the Council would be receiving a financial picture of all indebtedness of the Town showing the about of debt outstanding, when it will be maturing, etc., before they will be required to vote on this strategy.
Mayor McKee responded that they would—he also informed that the figures that he quoted were right from the audit report for the Town. The Town Council is not expected to approve any plan unless they have the completed project in front of them. The Town is still on schedule with regard to the consolidation plan—they will be providing the Council with a plan by January, 2013, as required by the ballot. The reason this is being accelerated was to comply with the directive of the voters regarding consolidation. More information will be presented in September. Sometime between now and January 1st, the Town will come to the Council with the suggested plan.
Roland C. Gauvin, of 2208 Mendon Road, stated that he was confused and rather perplexed. He previously lived in Woonsocket, which has a lot of villages, but it only had one fire department. Cumberland is an incorporated town, and the villages are part of that town. He asked why there were separate tax bills for fire protection, with different tax rates. He asked why each area is treated differently.
President Higgins responded that that was the point of this exercise—to come up with a plan to present one unified district with one unified tax rate.
Mr. Gauvin stated that the Constitution provides him with equal protection under the law, but he is not getting equal fire protection as he should. Certain districts are treated differently—this is discrimination and that is against the law. This is an archaic system, and is long overdue for a change.
James Scullin, of 85 Carlson Drive, Chairman of the Valley Falls Fire District, spoke next. He stated that he was representing the four districts in his presentation. There explained that there are always two ladder trucks available at all times. He stated that the Mayor omitted the fact that during the Charter Review Commission, when the presentation was to make a municipal department, the plan was to dismiss all the firefighters and make them reapply for their jobs. That set the tone for this whole debate, and that is why there has been no back and forth—there is a trust barrier.
President Higgins informed that the Charter Review Commission is independent of the Town Council.
Mayor McKee stated it has been his position not to do a layoff of any site, nor has he ever laid off an employee of the Town. He will not put forward to the Council a plan that impacts a current firefighter’s work status.
Mr. Scullin noted that the Mayor’s plan does propose a $1.5 million savings.
Mayor McKee responded that as he has previously stated, it would be through attrition. The sooner the districts get on board, the sooner the planning could begin and the taxpayers could begin saving money. He felt that the slowness of the districts was creating a lot more discomfort with the firefighters than what he is proposing.
Mr. Scullin noted that the consultants’ plan calls for 59 employees and that there are not currently that many between the four districts, and through attrition another 12 will be gone. So in effect they will be reducing the amount of manpower for the Town.
Mayor McKee responded that it would be 13 employees, and though there would be a reduction in manpower, there would be an increase in service.
Mr. Scullin asked how service could be increased when there is a reduction in the manpower.
Mayor McKee responded that because of the locations.
Mr. Scullin stated that the districts did not object to the hiring of a consultant for $8,700; he asked what the consultant has cost the Town to date, and he stated that he felt it had been a waste of taxpayer dollars. Hiring a specialist to deal with response times means nothing.
President Higgins stated that this specialist was being hired because the districts had not provided the information.
Mr. Scullin responded that they do not exist—their system does not do it. He informed that the districts have created a plan that will have all the districts as one as of July 1, 2013. A governing board would be created and approved by the General Assembly; all charters would be dissolved by April, 2013, so there would be one new charter with one governing board.
President Higgins asked about locations of stations.
Mr. Scullin responded that that would be determined by the new entity.
Mayor McKee responded that this only illustrates the non-responsiveness of the districts. He sent a letter May 30th to the districts asking for a plan with a July 1 deadline. Two weeks after it was announced that the Town was moving ahead with a public safety plan, this statement is made. He felt that as soon as the pressure is off, they would be back to the same old ways, and they would not provide the data showing the cost savings to the taxpayers. He was most disturbed by the fact that the police chief laid out a public safety strategy two weeks ago for the community, yet no one from any fire district contacted him to see how they could work together. This plan is too late as far as he is concerned, and should be too late for the taxpayers as well.
Councilor Lemois stated that the 2010 vote was a mandate instructing the Council to do certain things, one of which was to approve any plan consolidating the fire districts, so any plan would have to be approved by the Town Council by January, 2013.
Solicitor Hefner confirmed that that was correct, and that it would include the alleged proposal from the districts.
Councilor Lemois stated that they currently have nothing in front of them regarding the districts’ plan.
President Higgins asked if the districts had a written plan.
Mr. Scullin responded that the districts do not answer to the Council because they do not need their consent and advice.
President Higgins asked if they answered to the taxpayers.
Mr. Scullin responded that they do, and that they have. He noted that Valley Falls cut their tax rates, and all others remained the same. The districts are listening and they are better equipped to get the job done. The fire districts are independent, and they plan on staying that way.
Mayor McKee reinforced his prior statement—he felt that the attitude this matter was expressed in, such as saying they did not have to come to the Council, is disrespectful to the Town and the voters and the Town Council. He stated that this should be done in the spirit of cooperation for the very best pubic safety strategy for the Town. It is not about independent districts, it is about creating the best public safety policy in the Town. If the voters have elected commissioners that reflect what he has just heard, the very next time that there is an election, they should elect commissioners that are ready and prepared to work with the police chief to bring this plan forward.
Mayor McKee stated that he will be meeting with the firefighters in two days, and that he has had several meetings with them in the past two years. It is not about the firefighters; he will be meeting with them to discuss how to make this work so that no one loses their jobs.
President Higgins asked Mr. Scullin whether their plan had been approved by the voters in each district, or whether a vote had been scheduled.
Mr. Scullin responded that it will be put before the voters at its proper time—March or April of 2013.
President Higgins responded that that date was beyond the deadline set by the voters. He asked Mr. Scullin if they would be sharing their plan with the press.
Mr. Scullin responded that that would depend on whether they would be willing to print it. He noted that the Mayor’s plan reduces personnel by 25 percent—he asked if that would make the Town safer.
President Higgins responded that it does if it is done right.
Ronald Champagne, Chairman of the Cumberland Hill Fire District Board of Commissioners, stated that the Cumberland Hill Fire District is not opposed to consolidation. He was asked to chair the fire district merger committee. According to the committee, there were two issues—that the firefighters keep their jobs, and that the taxpayers continue to get the best protection they could provide. Two weeks ago, Chief Desmarias was added to this plan for the consolidation. The Town hired Mr. Jacobs—he has met with him numerous times. There was a discussion with him regarding response times—Mr. Champagne explained that the dispatchers’ software currently in use does not record the response time. The first engine is recorded, but nothing else. The information being requested cannot be supplied because it is not available. I is willing to sit down with the police chief or the Mayor at any time—but the Mayor has never called him about a meeting. So he should not present it that Cumberland Hill does not want to be part of this. He also referred to the issues North Smithfield ran into to with Primrose Fire. When that Town took over the fire district, everyone’s job was on the line; everyone had to reapply. He informed that the fire districts have been meeting and have come up with a model of what the districts should look like, which was then given to Mr. Jacobs and Chief Mansfield about three months ago. Chief Mansfield agreed that the fire apparatus in the Town is adequate, as well as utility vehicles and the number of personnel. They have had several meetings with Mr. Jacobs and Chief Mansfield. He has sat with the firefighters and asked them to come up with a model CBA because one of the big legal issues was trying to get the four districts together under one umbrella; they did provide a rough draft to use as a starting point. With that draft, they all agreed that on a specific date everyone’s contract would end and a new contract would go into effect. The commissioners of the have come up with new by-laws. They want to turn this over as a one-district department on July 1, 2013. So it is unfair to say that the fire districts are not working together.
President Higgins asked if anyone else in the room was aware of this progress.
Mr. Champagne responded that the other four district commissioners were. As soon as the bylaws are finished, they will be released. The next step would be to ask the taxpayers of each district to dissolve their district. The Town Council cannot say that—it is the resident of the district that can do that. There is a lot of misinformation, and their information is not out there because they are not getting the cooperation from the Town.
Councilor Lemois asked Mr. Champagne to confirm when he was appointed chairman of the fire district merger committee.
Mr. Champagne responded that he was unsure of the exact date.
Councilor Lemois asked if the meetings of this committee were submitted to the Secretary of State, and also asked if the minutes of those meeting were available.
Mr. Champagne responded that they were submitted to the Secretary of State but the minutes have not been posted on its website as they do not exist. He noted that the Mayor’s plan will be moving a fire station from Cumberland Hill to Scofield Farm—he thought this would be an issue because it was purchased as open space. He noted that a run from there to Highland Park would require an 11 minutes response time; response times for fire departments from the time the call is received is supposed to be 6 minutes to save someone from dying of a stroke or heart attack.
Chief Desmarais stated that he needed to response to the allegation made regarding the dispatchers. Response times are capable of being captured. He can supply response times for all of his cruisers. However, the fire districts are operating as one entity in that when they get dispatched out, they are dispatched out as one entity. If the trucks never arrive because they get called out, there are no response times. It was previously stated that if the first engine on scene does not see anything, it cancels the other apparatus so they never arrive, so there is nothing for the dispatchers to put in as arriving. They share one dispatcher and they are dispatched according to their dispatch cards which show what district answers what calls based on the call type. So they are currently operating as one entity.
Greg Dicomitis, of 44 DeSoto Street explained that standard operating procedure should a box alarm come from Town Hall is that Valley Falls is dispatched first, followed by Cumberland 22. Everyone gets dispatched; certain people are dispatched to certain things. He stated that he hoped the Council takes its time with this; he does not think the Council is receiving a lot of information. They have no information in front of them, so how can they make a determination? He also asked why a public safety building all of a sudden.
President Higgins responded because the police station is inadequate.
Mr. Dicomitis stated that when the proposal originally came out to the taxpayers, it was for fire consolidation. The police know they need a new building; rescue really needs a new building. But if you are taking one thing and putting in another, the taxpayers must be informed that it is being done.
President Higgins responded that if they decide to do that, they will need to build a new building for police and rescue. Since a new building is needed, it would be more efficient to relocate a fire department into a new building.
Mr. Dicomitis responded that the Council really must do its homework, because from what he is hearing, response times are going to be very slow, especially for the second engine.
Arthur Lambi, of 8 Hannah Drive, spoke next. He stated that the wording of referendum was to allow the Town to spend up to $30,000 of taxpayer money to study a different governmental unit. The fire districts are different governing bodies and the Town to a certain degree has no business in those districts. He agreed that consolidation is long overdue; he can see why the referendum was drafted and proposed to the taxpayers, and he voted for it. But the referendum stated that they authorized the study, they did not authorize the actual consolidation, so the Mayor is doing what the referendum said—he is conducting a study with an expert, there have been some open discussions, and he agreed with the process. He also stated that this process is a large undertaking; to combine and merge all public safety at the same time is an even greater task. Additionally, folding in cost factors of a new public safety facility as well as the building of a second new fire house on Nate Whipple Highway, things get a bit clouded. He did agree that the Mayor and the Council should be working with the taxpayers and stakeholders to ensure the plan is solid before moving forward. To hear two weeks ago that the Town was ready to put a bond referendum close to $10 million, and now this week there will not be a bond referendum is frightening.
President Higgins explained that that the Mayor was unable to provide a detailed plan for this meeting, and the Council will not vote on anything without a very detailed plan that is vetted by the public prior to an election.
Mr. Lambi also stated that he does not understand the 59 members of the department as stated by the Mayor if the Town will be saving $2 million—how is the personnel level going to be kept at 59?
Mayor McKee responded that he would put a plan forward that would cost a firefighter his job; when going from 4 locations to 3, there will be fewer personnel. It will be done through attrition.
President Higgins asked the average age of the firefighters.
Mr. Lambi responded that there were upwards of 12 firefighters eligible to retire this past June town-wide. Each firefighter costs approximately $100,000 between base pay, overtime, training, stipends, health insurance and pension contributions. A $2 million savings comes out to about 15 positions, and another half million in reduction in insurance, etc.
Councilor Lemois stated that at the meeting of the Cumberland Hill Fire District in March, Mr. Lambi put forth a proposal that included reducing the amount of firefighters through attrition. So basically this is the same plan that Mr. Lambi put forth then.
Mr. Lambi stated that where the station is located in the north side of Town has a big meaning to those not only on the northern side but also the eastern and western areas of Town. He has attended different district meetings as well as all posted meetings of the consolidation committee except one, and he has not seen a meeting posted on the Secretary of State’s website since the March meeting. He is glad to see some progress being made at the Town Council level because unfortunately things have come to a screeching halt over the last four months. He also noted that the Mayor’s point of paying down Town debt at the rate of $4 million per year—that information is taken from the annual audit, but the point he has been trying to make during the past three years of budget hearings is that on the same report, the liabilities have been increasing because the Town has not been adequately funding the police pension fund and post-employment health insurance promises, which has not been mentioned this evening. He wanted to be sure that all the Council members are aware of that situation before any decisions are made.
Mayor McKee stated that the ballot did not speak about the $30,000 for the study, it was the RFP that did. The referendum did refer to the consolidation. He noted that if they move forward on this project involving the public safety building, the public will get to vote on it. They are not mutually exclusive, nor is it that you can do with but not the other. It makes a lot more sense right now to do it collectively than independently.
Councilor Wilk stated that he is in support of the fact that police and rescue need a place. There are some problems to be ironed out with the fire districts, and that may take a little longer than people think. He suggested considering another plan similar to what South Kingstown has—a safety complex that has the rescue and police together. This is what is really needed, and then when everything is ironed out, then proceed with regard to fire.
Councilor Lemois stated that the Council does not all the data yet; this was not a final plan but rather an update; when the Council does make it decision, they will have all the facts in front of them. He believes that tonight shows a clear defining approach to public safety in the Town. He is committed that ensuring that no firefighter will loss their job; money will be saved through attrition and efficiencies.
MOTION BY COUNCILOR WILK, SECONDED BY COUNCILOR DACOSTA AND IT IS UNANIMOUSLY VOTED TO ADJOURN AT 10:01 P.M. VOTE 6/0.
Sandra M. Giovanelli, Town Clerk