The Final Chapter?
Voters in the Central Coventry Fire District passed a budget this week for the first time in three attempts - but it won't be enough to fund the district for the coming year. The overwhelming message from voters: shut the financially-troubled district down. This week Jim Hummel hears from the district board's new chairman and the firefighters union president - who have differing views on the future of the department.
Click HERE to watch our previous report on the Coventry Fire District with extended interview footage and copies of the union contracts.
They lined early up to get into Coventry High School Monday night - hundreds of taxpayers ready to exercise the purest form of democracy.
In all, nearly 900 people came to decide the fate of the Central Coventry Fire District - and it turns out put the department one step closer to liquidation.
It may have been a new board, but this meeting had the feel of previous gatherings.
Lot of questions.
And a good dose of outbursts.
Some had heard enough, ready to cast a ballot and go - while the Q & A session lasted for more than an hour.
Inside the auditorium, new board Chairman Fred Gralinski fielded many of the questions - from some who didn't really want to hear an answer. Under the umbrella of a Superior Court judge and a court-appointed receiver, the board had been working for months to come up with a new budget - after trying to negotiate concessions from the firefighters union.
Last week, the board said enough: rejecting the proposed concessions and recommending liquidation of the department.
Gralinski: ``We were trying to make this work. And we needed help from the union. We don't feel we got it. We got mostly - and I don't mind saying this, I'll go through line by line - smoke and mirrors concessions.''
In his first extended public comments Gralinski talked about the struggle the board had recommending closure.
Gralinski: ``This is our community and we do care. And we're not making any of these decisions lightly - in fact when we voted to dissolve the district one of the gentlemen on the board had to say it twice because the first time when he opened his mouth, the words didn't come out. We had to get him to repeat himself. No one slept the night before, they were tossing and turning because it's such a major decision for the community we live in, for our friends, neighbors and relatives. This was not taken lightly and it was never fore planned, that we were going this way.''
The department's financial woes have been well-chronicled since The Hummel Report was the first to reveal in June of 2012 that the department's budget had increased 60 percent over five years, based on figures provided by the chief at the time, Robert Seltzer. Seltzer left shortly after our story ran to become fire chief in Smithfield.
Union President David Gorman says the turmoil surrounding the financial problems has turned personal at times.
Gorman: ``We've had calls where people have actually refused treatment - `You guys from Central Coventry?' That hits you. People are like, `Yeah, I'm all set I'll wait for the next rescue.' This is your only shot. We're here.''
Gralinski: ``I respect the profession, I think that's the part that hurts everyone on the board is when they get up and act like we don't care about the people. I respect what they do, every day and everyone on that board respects what they do. Sadly what we're talking about now is that terrible subject called money. How much are people willing to pay to get the service?''
But talking with Gralinski and Gorman is like watching two different movies.
Gorman: ``I think we'll still survive. I think tomorrow we'll be here, I think moving forward we'll be here, I'm not too confident the judge will bang the gavel and say it's all over. ''
Hummel: ``What gives you the confidence to say that. Because everything they've said, this board said last week we're recommending liquidation, the judge has said `Look, I can only prop this up so long, it's not really my role' - without the taxpayers giving you the funding is it a different looking department, or is it...how do you square the numbers that don't add up?''
Gorman: ``The number today, that this board presented today, was a budget based on the $1.1 million concessions that we gave - so I'm confident, as long as the board chooses to accept the concessions, the budget works.''
Gralinski: ``They're deferred they're putting the expense down the road, so if we transfer today's expense for debt, we haven't accomplished anything for the long term stability of the district. And the judge ordered us to find a way to make sure this was long-term sustainable.''
Hummel: ``What are you hearing out in the community?''
Gralinski: ``The people are sick of having the tail wag the dog. Even beyond the money, this labor contract over the past few years has taken all of the labor rights; they determine how many people are employed, they determine how many are on a shift at any given time. The contract determines what the shift hours are. Every management right has been given away. It is just a real phenomenal contract. Even people who do government contracts this one is phenomenal.''
By 9:15 the results showed voters had overwhelmingly approved a $5.6 million budget for the coming year - something they hadn't done since 2010. But it's a budget that won't be enough to carry the district through another year - leaving most believing this is truly the beginning of the end.
With the exception, that is, of the union president.
Hummel: ``So you don't think it's over?''
Gorman: ``No I don't think there's a need for it to be over. Either way it goes this evening, there's a budget tomorrow morning. I still believe this board has put out a budget that has very limited revenue. I think there's much more revenue that can be generated, but it requires some tough decisions by the board.''
Hummel: ``Doesn't it require tough decisions by the union to say maybe we need to cut a little more manpower?''
Gorman: ``No, I don't think it necessarily does. I think we came up with a pretty darn good concession agreement.''
Hummel: ``Do you have any confidence given the way things have gone the last couple of months that this district is going to survive?''
Gralinski: ``....Well, the decisions to that are in either the union's hands if they want to save their members jobs - perhaps they can go back to their room and work, or it's going to be up to the judge.''
Ten hours before Monday's meeting Superior Court Judge Brian Stern said he will decide on Nov. 1st what it all means.
But Stern added that while there are weighty decisions to be made, nothing's going to happen suddenly or unexpectedly.
Stern: ``The vote will have immediate effect on the operations of the Central Coventry Fire Department. Once that vote is taken, the court is prepared to take up the unanimous recommendation of the board at the last meeting.''
In Coventry, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.