COVENTRY — House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan (R-District 26 Coventry, Warwick, West Warwick) has introduced legislation amending the Central Coventry Fire District’s Charter with changes approved by an overwhelming majority of the district’s voters in September 2016. Included in the bill are changes such as increasing the voting quorum requirement to 100 people, a 4 percent annual spending cap, the hiring of a full-time business manager and a 15 percent debt limit.
Rep. Morgan testified on the bill at a hearing last week before members of the House Committee on Municipal Government. She said that after six years of struggling to recover from the effects of poor management and bankruptcy, the CCFD is ready for the changes.
“The Central Coventry Fire District has finally paid off its debt, downsized its spending and righted their fiscal ship,” Morgan said. “These charter changes are precautions that have been approved by the Board of Directors, as well as the people the district to ensure that bankruptcy never happens again.”
Morgan noted that during the annual meeting on Sept. 19, 2016, more than 97 percent of the voters approved the charter changes. David D’Agostino, who represents the CCFD Board of Directors, said that the changes will ultimately lead to taxpayers playing a more active role in the district’s financial decisions.
“These changes will bring accountability between board members and citizens,” D’Agostino said. “We support avoiding conflicts of interest by incorporating provisions of the RI Code of Ethics into our charter.”
The goal is to make changes that prevent bankruptcy, according to CCFD Board Member Cindy Fagan.
“Board members will be able to be recalled by taxpayers,” Fagan said. “We need the one-year separation between being an active firefighter and being a board member to decrease the union ties and discourage conflicts of interest during contract negotiations. Having firefighters sit on both sides of the table led to financial abuse.”
With the new changes, the district would need 100 qualified voters in attendance to constitute a quorum, rather than the previous 25. In the past, the required 25 voters had been filled by board members who invited family and friends.
According to Former CCFD Vice Chair Marie Baker, the changes are common sense and will protect the district from “another rogue board.”
“In the past, 95 percent of the town did not even know there was an annual budget meeting occurring,” Baker said. “This created a situation where the friends and relatives of the firefighters were, in effect, voting for their raises.”
Baker said that the board had approved an overly generous contract, as described by Superior Court Judge
“The district was rife with bad management and conflicts of interest,” she added. “The fire chief without much, if any controls, drove the district into bankruptcy by buying unnecessary equipment and loading on extra employees.
She said the board had sought a 65 percent tax increase to pay for all of the extra spending.
“It was so bad that when the state took over, despite some cuts, they wanted to increase taxes by 1/3,” she said.
According to Baker, the district has reduced its employees from 52 to 32 and its fire stations from five to two. Spending is also down $2 million annually.
“Today we are still able to handle the same number of calls, which have remained consistent for the last eight years. An analysis of data revealed that one of those closed stations received fewer than one call each day. The current staffing is more than adequate to handle the volume.”
Another existing station, Baker said, receives roughly four calls in a 24-hour period.
The bill was introduced in partnership with Rep. Robert Nardolillo (R-District 28 Coventry) and Rep. Mike Chippendale (R-District 40 Foster, Coventry, Glocester).
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