COVENTRY — With just a couple of months to go before it’s projected to run out of money, the Central Coventry Fire District is hoping for an infusion of funds from the state to keep it from collapsing. 

The $3 million it's requested would let the district enact a plan that includes moving to a staffing model that ultimately would “make Coventry, as a whole, more safe,” said Gayle Corrigan, the fire district’s treasurer. 

If the district is to receive the American Rescue Plan Act funds that it’s hoping for, CCFD Board of Directors President Cynthia Fagan-Perry said, $1 million of it would go into a rainy-day fund, $1 million would be earmarked for capital improvements, and the rest would go to starting a fourth platoon — a move that’s needed to eliminate the district’s structural deficit, according to a corrective action plan sent by the district to the state auditor general.

“If you want to go forward into the future you have to start with a plan to create a very healthy Central Coventry Fire District,” Corrigan told Coventry Town Council members during their meeting Monday, “and that’s what the $3 million does.”

The district is also seeking a 15.65 percent supplemental tax increase, to be put before voters during an all-day referendum May 9, that will help it survive until the fall. 

Corrigan has projected that the district — which she said goes through around $100,000 weekly and currently has $689,000 in all of its accounts — will run out of money at the end of June. 

“When we run out of money, that means we can’t make payroll, we can’t pay the lights,” Corrigan said. 

And if that happens, then thousands of residents who rely on the Central Coventry Fire District could be in trouble. 

“There is no obligation for the other districts to respond,” said Frank Brown, chief of the Hopkins Hill and Central Coventry fire districts.

Taxpayers in the town’s three other fire districts pay for their trucks to be there, Brown added. Mutual aid is reciprocal, he said, so if Central Coventry disappears then the trucks from Hopkins Hill, for example, can’t spend all of their time in a district that can’t reciprocate. 

“Quite honestly,” the chief continued, “I don’t believe there’ll be any response from the other fire districts.”

If the state doesn’t come through with the district’s requested funds and next month’s supplemental tax referendum fails, Corrigan said, then there is currently no alternative plan for saving the district. 

“The only thing I can guarantee you is it’s going to be messy,” Corrigan told councilors. “There’s no magic solution because if there was, we would have already done it.” 

There are three major reasons for the district’s current financial troubles, Corrigan said. 

One reason, she said, is that during the pandemic the district has received significantly less from insurance company reimbursements.

Taxes have always accounted for around 80 percent of the district’s roughly $5 million annual budget, Corrigan said, with insurance reimbursements and other smaller revenue sources filling in the rest. And last year, she said, the district received around $300,000 less than usual from insurance. 

“Of course COVID was a major factor,” she said. “People stopped taking rescues as much; people stopped activity.”

The second cause of the district’s financial woes is a recent spike in its insurance costs, Corrigan said. 

In 2021, the district’s insurance totaled $43,000. This year, thanks partly to an incident several years ago when a kid took a rescue vehicle and crashed it, it’s risen to $208,000. 

“That insurance number was a little bit unexpected,” Corrigan said. “We did our best to try to mediate it — we increased our deductibles, did all sorts of things… we are going out for an insurance bid again this year, but I think it’s going to be at that level for some time.”

Finally, Corrigan said, the Firefighter Overtime Bill that was signed into law in 2019, requiring that employees who work more than 42 hours be paid overtime, has also had a major impact on the district’s finances. 

After falling under state control for two years following its declaration of bankruptcy in 2014, the district faced staffing cuts and was moved to a three-platoon, 56-hour workweek model. 

Switching to a four-platoon system, which would have more firefighters working fewer hours, would essentially get rid of the district’s overtime costs, Corrigan said. 

Under that model, she said, the district would have its own full-time fire marshal and full-time chief. In all, she predicts the district would need to hire up to 15 new staff members to join the 29 employees currently there. That could take two or three years, she said. 

“We’re bigger than the town of East Greenwich,” Corrigan added. “We’re bigger than West Warwick, in terms of size, in terms of run volume — we’re a very, very, very busy department.”

The plan to switch to this new staffing model would rely on a 4 percent increase from taxpayers each year — historically, Corrigan said, voters in the district have been willing to approve that amount — to ensure that it doesn’t risk running out of money again. 

“One of the things that’s a really important part of the plan is that there has to be continual tax increases,” Corrigan said. “We do need to get the taxpayer to understand that they have to pay more.” 

During a public comment period at Monday’s council meeting, several people took the podium to share their frustrations over the situation that the Central Coventry Fire District has found itself in. 

When the district fell under the state’s control several years ago, said Joseph Andreoli, president of The Rhode Island Association of Firefighters, a plan was created that would have transitioned the district to a four-platoon system within a few years. But the district didn’t do that.

The district was also encouraged to apply for federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grants, Andreoli added, but “they refused.”

The firefighters and the chief “are doing the best they can with Band-aids and gum to protect this town,” Andreoli continued.

“We need to fix this problem. People will die, people will get injured, property will get lost,” he said, pointing out that Central Coventry makes up “the lion’s share” of the town’s fire and rescue response. 

It was suggested by several speakers Monday that the way to avoid this kind of problem in the future is to establish a municipal fire department. 

“The solution to this is one department,” Jonathan Pascua, of the Coventry Fire District, told the town council. “You need a town-wide fire department desperately. This is not going to go away unless you do that.”

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