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Fire district, town merger moving ahead

January 6, 2011

Discussions are ongoing

Discussion of a possible consolidation of the East Greenwich Fire District with town government officially moved beyond talk and into the factfinding phase Tuesday night.
The district’s newly formed committee to discuss consolidation began its task with a meeting at Fire Station No. 1 on Main Street after the district’s Board of Fire Commissioners and Town Council voted over the past two months to study the possibility of bringing fire and emergency rescue services under the town’s umbrella.
Commissioner William Daly, an ex officio member who will not vote, said the board will not vote on whether or not to recommend a consolidation, but will present a report to the commissioners and the council with the facts they need to make a decision. He said the committee’s goal was to have a report ready sometime in June.
“We’re not going to be coming up with the decision, but we’ll be looking at the factors they’ll need. We don’t want to drag it out,” he said.
The committee also includes former council member Dr. Mark Schwager, former councilman and School Committee member Carl Hoyer, Peter Sperduti, Stefan Coutulakis, Kathi Mullaney, and Tom Bacon (ex officio). Councilman Jeffrey Cianciolo serves as the council’s liaison to the committee.
Previous looks at the possibility of a department merger include a 1994 ad hoc study committee and a 2006 report by MMA Consulting Group. Since the MMA report, the town has taken over the district’s billing and tax collection, even though it wasn’t a recommendation in the report, said district Chief Peter F. Henrikson.
Town officials have spent the past few months speculating on the possibility that a merger could save the town money and provide fire protection for less money than the district’s fiscal 2011 budget of $5,055,636.
Committee members will be looking at other towns going through similar situations, including Lincoln, Cumberland and Coventry, and also municipal departments of similar size such as Portsmouth, Narragansett and Middletown.
“There’s nothing wrong with looking at like-size communities even though they’re not districts,” Henrikson said, adding that he’s interested in the three largest expenses: salaries, health care and pensions.
Sixteen of the state’s 39 communities have fire districts instead of municipal departments.
Another community the panel will look at is Exeter, where Coutulakis, a retired district captain, is public safety director. Exeter now has a townwide fire district after having once had two fire companies governed by the town.
Cianciolo, a council newcomer who campaigned for a merger study, said the recent lack of participation in the district’s annual town meeting may give a town-run department more accountability.
“If I’m a taxpaying resident and I don’t have time to go to their meeting in June, I have no say in how the commissioners are elected. I go to vote in November for five councilors, and my vote will count more,” he said.
Daly said the commissioners have the necessary accountability to voters through their current election at the annual meeting.
“We’ve looked at the bylaws and tried to make the process more open, make the public aware of the candidates. There’ve been times when we’ve had (Swift Community Center) filled,” he said.
Hoyer said he preferred to have commissioners who are well versed in fire district matters in charge, but acknowledged the dropoff in voter participation.
“I’m an advocate of the financial town meeting, but I’m also a realist. The financial town meeting is dead,” he said.
The committee will meet again at the Main Street station on Wednesday, Jan. 26 at 6:30 p.m.

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