The 800-pound “political football” in the firehouse is about to get much more attention.
By a 3-0 vote with two abstentions, the East Greenwich Fire District Board of Commissioners Thursday night asked the newly elected Town Council to conduct a study of whether the historically independent fire district, which collects its own taxes to fund its operations, should be merged into town government.
Discussion of a merger, which has lurked in the back of town political and fiscal debates, received new momentum Thursday from Commissioner Mark Gee, who was sworn in as a newly elected member of the council Monday night.
“I got a lot of questions during the campaign about why (the fire district) is separate from the town. The only reason I could give is that it's been separated for 213 years,” said Gee, who voted to support the study along with fellow commissioners William Daly and James R. Harris.
The planned study is staunchly opposed by Chairman Douglas Axelson, who along with Stephen Bartlett voted to abstain.
Axelson said the district's success over the past five years in consolidating tax bills, negotiating union contracts and obtaining necessary equipment proves a merger with the town isn't necessary.
“Quite frankly, I think we do a very good job here. We do better than some of our sitting commissions in town,” he said.
Gee stopped short of directly advocating a merger, but said the town needs to take another look at the possibility, last studied formally in the 1990s.
“I'd like to have more specific answers when people ask the reasons why we have a separate district, whether we're looking at the union situation, cost savings, or increases. I would like to charge the Planning Board with finding the factors to look at if we do consolidate with the town,” he said.
“It's a political football that got people elected,” Axelson said.
Bartlett agreed with Axelson that the department wouldn't fare better under town management.
“I've seen a lack of planning, then entering crisis mode to do things, trying to get out from under bad equipment purchases. I just think we've been efficient and worked very well with the union,” Bartlett said.
Daly praised the district's fiscal management, adding its percentage increase in tax levy has been lower than the town's two of the past three years. He felt the town should be taking the initiative in studying a merger.
“We have to (take this vote) if we're going to be looking at it and there's no input from the town,” he said.
Chief Peter R. Henrikson, promoted to his position by the board Thursday after serving six months as acting chief, also felt the district is being run in fiscally sound fashion in its current status.
“I just wish someone could show me where the savings are,” he said of the merger discussion.
Council President Michael B. Isaacs said the board's request would serve as a starting point for discussion.
“It's a topic that always comes up. Given the tough economic times, we'll need to take a closer look at it,” he said.
Councilman Michael S. Kiernan said he and his colleagues are open to discussion of a merger, and aren't ready to take positions yet.
“I can't say yes or no, This would need an awful lot of discussion,” he said