The Local Perspective
Since The Hummel Report first uncovered massive financial problems three years ago in the Central Coventry Fire Districts, taxpayers have repeatedly tried to pull the plug on the bankrupt district, rejecting budget increases and telling receivers they want structural change. Earlier this month the latest state receiver announced a new five-year contract that he says achieves major concessions from the union. But two local leaders - who were frozen out of the negotiations - say it still doesn’t get to the heart of the district’s troubles.
Click here to watch our 2012 report on the Central Coventry Fire District.
If you hadn’t been paying attention to what’s going on with the Central Coventry Fire District the past three years, the new contract proposal unveiled earlier this month sounded pretty good. Staffing cuts, limits on overtime, increased contributions on healthcare.
But many of the people who attended the meeting - and those elected to represent the taxpayers - have a different point of view than that of state receiver Mark Pfeiffer’s and his new five-year contract proposal with the union..
Gralinski: ``The money he’s saved is truly smoke and mirrors.’’
Fred Gralinski chairs the current fire board, which replaced a board of directors that drove the district into bankruptcy. But Gralinksi’s board has had no say in the new contract.
That’s because under state law Pfeiffer, a retired Superior Court judge who became the district’s third receiver in January, has the sole authority to negotiate contracts and set tax rates, which is what he’s doing, largely without the input of the citizens who are footing the bill.
Gralinski: ``To get any information out of these people we have to use Freedom of Information (ACT) - even then they don’t answer everything.’’
Hummel: ``And you’re the board.’’
Gralinski: ``And we’re the board, he has total disdain for citizens.’’
The Hummel Report first reported three years ago on the serious budget problems the district faced and the public outcry that followed. After a consolidation of several districts in 2006 into one Central Coventry district, we discovered the budget had increased more than 60 percent in five years.
Over, and over, and over again, hundreds turned out to meetings, voting repeatedly to dissolve the district. But the state stepped in, extending the Fiscal Stability Act that had been used to help financially troubled municipalities, to fire districts.
Morgan: ``What the people were simply saying was `This is not what we asked for when we consolidated. We want something that’s more affordable.’”
Representative Patricia Morgan says the taxpayers are being ignored.
Morgan: ``Every part of government has stopped them. A judge took a valid vote that rejected a budget and he said `Well…we don’t think they knew what they were voting for. Let’s have them do a do over.’”
Graslinski: ``The cuts need to be such that we rebuild the district so we can start over again. That’s what bankruptcy is, to put a business back in shape, and that’s what we need for our fire district.’’
Morgan: ``I think at this point the only way to give the people what they have been voting for, what they have been struggling to get, is to restructure the district.Does that mean you get rid of the entire fire district? Not necessarily. But it means the way that district provides fire services changes.’’
Both Morgan and Gralinski say it should start with a privatization of the rescue service, which could save millions and increase service. It’s a concept the union has strongly resisted.
Gralinski: ``We can get a recue for half a million each. Right now we only have two rescues, we could get three a million and a half. ‘’
Hummel: ``And the two cost how much?’’
Gralinski: ``They cost a couple of million dollars.’’
Morgan: ``There are private ambulance services all over the state of Rhode Island - it’s in Westerly, it’s in Lincoln, it’s in Bristol, it’s in Warren, so this is not revolutionary. Other communities use private ambulances to control costs.’’
And what about safety concerns, which union president David Gorman has repeatedly raised when any talk about restructuring comes up?
Hummel: ``The way the department is operating now, are you confident it’s meeting the needs, the fire needs of the people or not?””
Gralinski: ``Absolutely. The way the system is set up, if there’s a call there’s like three fire departments that all respond. If the nursing home calls, there will three rescues, three fire trucks. Hopkins Hill, Anthony and Central Coventry. The system is set up that we don’t’ have to be an island onto ourself.’’
Baker: ``Are you an elected official? Are you an elected official?...’’
Fire Board member Marie Baker asked the question that many in the audience two weeks ago were thinking: where is the local representation? Pfeiffer finally asked her to sit down.
The receiver said he is saving money through reduced manpower, but Gralinski says former receiver Richard Land had already factored that into the budget.
Gralinski: ``Big personnel savings is the fact there’s fewer people working. Richard Land cashed that check two years ago, the people left. We went from five stations to two, Richard Land put it in the budget and that’s how we were able to skate through on the reduced revenue.”
And the new contract calls for annual pay raises.
Gralinski: ``We had to hear how they went two years without a raise. Well, welcome to the real world. Even people in state unions and federal employees. We’ve gone a lot longer than that. When my company was in financial trouble we went six years, and even after they got together they realigned pay scales and you were lucky to get one percent.’’
Morgan : ``The union had at any point over the past two and a half years could have come to the table and said: `Okay, how do we restructure the district to make it strong again, to pay off the debt, to make it affordable.’ They didn’t.
Hummel: ``Do you think the union has thought we have allies at the State House?’’
Morgan: ``What do you think? Of course, of course. Three bills were passed by this General Assembly that basically told the people: we don’t want to hear what you have to say, we just want you to pay the bill.’’
Gralinski: ``We’re doomed because this five-year (contract) is just to make people go away. Pfeiffer’s job is to quiet it down, shaft the people, he’ll take his $200 an hour and over five years the population in town will change and people won’t know what’s going on.’’
Morgan says the fight is not over yet. Pfeiffer still needs approval of the new contract from a U.S. Bankruptcy court judge on Friday May 1st.
Morgan: ``The receiver will be going to federal court now and asking the judge to bless the collective bargaining agreement. We want to be there at the same time and say `Hold on a minute. Hold on a minute.’ There is an alternative here that this receiver has refused to look at.’’
Gralinski: ``It’s not just a financial bankruptcy, we have a moral bankruptcy. The people in town are sick of these guys.’’
Morgan: ``I think people think this is just about Central Coventry. It is not. It is about every part of government out here that is willing to not put the people first.’’
In Coventry, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.