EAST GREENWICH — Usually at this point of the year, the East Greenwich Fire District is hammering down some numbers and preparing a budget for the upcoming year without much worry.
But this year is much different in that the future of the Fire District’s existence is extremely uncertain given the clock is ticking on when the legislation to merge the Fire Department into the Town of East Greenwich will take effect.
Fire Commissioner Stephen Bartlett asked during the EGFD’s monthly meeting at Town Hall last Thursday if the budget planning for the Fire District will be rectified before the merger bills are passed through both the State Senate and House of Representatives and given the final signature by Gov. Lincoln Chafee, officially eliminating the two-government format in East Greenwich that has been in place since 1797, as well as having the proper personnel in place to make the transition go smoothly.
Scott Spears, the Fire District’s legal counsel, showed the Board of Fire Commissioners a list of all the things he deemed “problematic” regarding the merger, a list he said he addressed with Town Manager William Sequino and Town Solicitor Peter Clarkin. The biggest item, Spears said, was addressed was to express to the Town the need to coordinate the legislation with the Governor’s office so Chafee doesn’t sign the bill until the EGFD directs him to sign the bill.
“By controlling the signature on the bill, we can delay the signature until the Fire District and the Town have worked out all of these issues,” Spears said, “and that the Fire District and the Town can mutually agree that we reached a point in the process where it makes sense, then sign the bill, make the law and the Fire District disappears.
“Otherwise, if we’re caught off guard and the Governor just signs it, then your position is correct in that we cease to exist. There’s no treasurer or legal counsel. There’s not ability to effectuate anything that we need to do to deliver this thing appropriately.”
Bartlett added that he understands the tremendous sense of urgency for the Town Council to make the merger a reality, but emphasized that the Council still needs to take the necessary steps to make sure it’s done right.
Commissioner Mark Gee, who also serves as a Town Council member, said his concern is the Town needs to have the right financial figures in place considering the fiscal budget for 2014 has to be submitted by May 15 – as well as presented at the financial town meeting in June.
Bartlett’s other concern is the EGFD is working on a budget that it’s going to hand off to the Town, but he believes there hasn’t been much interest on the Town’s part to hear or listen to what the Fire District would present based on it may not be the direction the Town wants to go in. Gee responded by saying the Council’s concern is to “not interfere” with EGFD’s business where the Town doesn’t have a right to be involved, even though there are indications of what is going to happen.
In part due to the concerns of the merger, the EGFD voted Thursday on an extension of the purchase and sales agreement for the land on the corner of Cedar Avenue and Post Road – the parcel that is for sale by the State of Rhode Island the Fire District wants to build a new Station 1 on.
Spears said the extension won’t come to fruition until later on in the year, much in part to more evaluation is needed considering a human skull was found while archaeologists were conducting a study on the site, which is believed to be a Narragansett Indian burial ground, per order of the Fire District and also the merger issue. Spears said the Town will have “several months” to make a decision whether or not it wants to go forward with the purchase of that land.
Chief Peter Henrikson said the skull discovery took place the day after the Fire District’s last monthly meeting and that he’s waiting for a technical report from the archaeologists. Once he has that, representatives from the R.I. Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration, the Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission and the Narragansett Indian Tribe will have a meeting to discuss the matter.
Henrikson said when he spoke with Robert Jackson of the RIDOT, Jackson said to not throw hands up in the air about the finding as of yet and to keep going forward into possibly purchasing the land.
One item that won’t be on the agenda for Thursday’s pre-budget meeting will be a public hearing on the proposed amendment to Section 16 the by-laws regarding the nominations of prospective fire commissioners who are to be elected upon at the Fire District’s annual meeting in June.
Initially, the amendments to the by-laws would be that anyone who wishes to run for fire commissioner must apply through a nominating committee and only those who met the nominating committee are allowed to nominate themselves from the floor during the annual meeting. Traditionally, any prospective commissioner can nominate themselves from the floor and be voted on by the public at the June meeting.
However, Spears asked that given the merger legislation is in all likelihood going to become a reality and the timing of it going to be within the next month or two, if it makes sense to go forward with the discussion of amending the by-laws and going through the legal process of putting everything together to have those changes go into effect. Gee and the rest of the commissioners agreed and voted unanimously on the matter.
The pre-budget hearing will be held in the Town Hall chambers at 6 p.m. Thursday evening. On Wednesday, the House of Representatives took a vote on the floor on the legislation of the merger at the State House. If passed, then the first hurdle in East Greenwich establishing a fire department will be cleared. The Senate has yet to take a vote on the legislature. Full coverage of the House vote will be in next week’s Pendulum.