Last November, East Greenwich voters voted by a 2-1 margin to merge the East Greenwich Fire District with the Town. The plan expressed by the Town Council would have the current Fire District operate much like the Police Department, as a town department reporting to the Town Manager.
Some Fire Commissioners have expressed confusion over the vote by taxpayers, wondering why anyone would possibly pursue this. The Town Council, nonetheless, has been pretty straightforward: it is about effectiveness, transparency, and accountability. There is, as well, a sense that additional savings – perhaps substantial savings – can be had, despite the fact that the town is already handling many of the Fire District’s administrative responsibilities.
At the public forum last October 15, EGFD Chairman Bill Daly said that if voters approved the referendum, the Fire District would not stand in the way. Despite this, some Commissioners at the District’s December meeting proposed a motion to oppose the merger, but it failed to get support. The Town Council and the Fire District will now meet on Monday at Swift Community Center to discuss next steps.
Regardless of the progress toward merger, there are some important questions hanging out there that the Fire District should be addressing. Here are a few of them:
1. Data from the US Census Bureau and RIPEC show that per capita Fire Protection costs in RI are 39 percent higher than the New England average, and 43 percent higher than the U.S. average. Can you explain why this is so? Why is fire safety so much more expensive here than elsewhere?
2. According to data from the R.I. Division of Municipal Finance, the tax rate for fire protection in East Greenwich is the sixth highest in the state. We’re paying $2.10 per $1,000 in assessed value for fire services. If the Fire District is such good value, why does East Greenwich rank near the top of this "most expensive"list?
3. The Fire District voted recently to “try” to recover equipment in Warwick purchased by the EGFD to test compatibility in the context of a shared dispatch operation. Commissioners seem unable to explain the development process, and admit there was no written contract or memorandum of understanding with Warwick prior to it spending $162,000 to “explore.” If Warwick was interested in a shared dispatch operation, why did it not share in the equipment cost? And why wasn’t there a more formal management process in place before the Fire District committed the $162,000?
4. The Fire District recently approved an expenditure of $220,000 for a new fire rescue vehicle – an ambulance – which would bring to four the total of fire rescue vehicles in East Greenwich, a town of 13,146. The town of Barrington, a community of 16,310, currently maintains three such vehicles, one of them a "spare." The Fire Department of North Kingstown, a community of 26,486, also reports a total of three fire rescue vehicles. What is unique about East Greenwich that requires a fire rescue fleet 25 percent larger (and at least $220,000 more expensive) than these larger communities?
5. Fire District Commissioners, when pressed, have suggested ways in which Commissioners can more legitimately be elected (quorum for election is now just 30 residents), how Commissioners might continue to play a role in a town-managed fire department, and how more (and more timely) information can be made available to the public, etc. Yet none of these ideas ever reach fruition. Good talking points, but the Fire District never acts. Why? Where is the responsiveness from this public body?
6. And lastly, let me ask again here a question I raised at the public forum that Commissioners would not answer: Who, exactly, is the Fire District’s prime constituency? The residents and taxpayers of East Greenwich? Or the Fire District and its Commissioners?
There may be an opportunity at Monday’s 7 p.m. meeting at Swift Community Center for the Fire District to respond to these few questions. I look forward to it. We all should.