The Hummel Report

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All Coming Together

If you need a fire engine in Cumberland one of four separate fire departments in town could show up at your house.  That's about to change, as legislation passed at the 11th hour of this year's General Assembly session paves the way for a newly-created consolidated fire department. Jim Hummel finds there are some details in the plan that might serve as a model for other communities.

SCRIPT:

If you need a fire engine in Cumberland one of four separate fire departments could show up at your house.

Cumberland, North Cumberland, Cumberland Hill, and Valley Falls - each responsible part of the town's 28 square miles.

Each has its own board of directors, its own chief and its own taxing authority. And right now they don't have anything to do with the town of Cumberland itself. Which means property owners get two separate tax bills every year.

But that's about to change.

McKee: ``We got one town, but we got four fire departments, four chiefs, four tax collectors, four deputies - in their minds it just was common sense.''

Mayor Dan McKee says voters in 2010 overwhelmingly said they wanted to have one merged department - whether it be under the town's wing or an independent entity.

McKee said he remembers gathering all of the fire departments after a big storm several years ago.

McKee: ``I had my fingers on the table like this and I started to count: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 - nine representatives from the fire department at a meeting at 2 o'clock in the afternoon talking about emergency management. And then after the meeting they all had to huddle to determine what frequency they were going to be on.''

There was pushback from some of the departments.

But this spring the financial troubles of the Central Coventry Fire District, which The Hummel Report uncovered more than a year ago, got the General Assembly's attention. and that helped legislation required for a merger pass late in the session. The bill was introduced and shepherded by Sen. Ryan Pearson

Hummel: ``What effect did the Central Coventry dynamic have on Cumberland?''

McKee: ``I think it had a major impact in terms of the way the General Assembly saw  the issue.''

Another deciding factor? Instead of trying to move forward next month - the merger would  begin to take shape in the fall  of 2014 with the election of a seven-member board, decided by all voters in Cumberland.

But the department will be independent and not come under the town's control - although McKee envisions one property tax bill coming out of Town Hall.

Hummel: ``Was it a turf  battle?''

McKee: ``I think in some respects it was, also it was  kind of like, it's our business we'll take care of it, you stay out of it. Yet we knew it needed to be done, there's hundreds of thousands of dollars of tax savings every year that could be enjoyed  by the taxpayers.''

McKee estimates the savings will be 10-15 percent.

While a board will be elected next fall, the actual nuts and bolts of the merger won't kick in until 2015, when the four districts will have to align contracts and budgets. Another challenge: two of the districts work on a different shift schedule than the other two and they have differing tax rates.

The other key provision of a merger: the new department will have to live under the state's budget cap on spending every year, something they don't have to do now. That was a factor in the near-demise of the Central Coventry Fire District, which we found had a 60 percent budget increase in the first five years after it merged.

McKee: ``Right now none of the independent districts in the state of Rhode Island, Jim, have to abide by the state tax cap. Yet when I pass budgets my public safety, my police is under that tax cap, my rescue, my dispatch, our schools, every municipal department has to abide by the tax cap, yet those four independent districts in town did not have to.''

Hummel: ``Did you find they were exceeding it?'

McKee: ``They did and that's what added fuel to the fire in terms  of helping us get it done.''

Hummel: ``How long have they been talking about a consolidation in Cumberland?''

Jacvony: ``That's the reason I brought my little binder. I have a note here from 1965.''

Brian Jackvony is a Cumberland native who became chief of the Valley Falls department in 2007, after 24 years with the Providence Fire Department. He says there has already been streamlining and savings for the taxpayers.

Jackvony took over chief duties for the North Cumberland department when its chief left in 2011, right after voters said they wanted to see a merger. Jackvony said some administrative and deputy chief positions have already been eliminated, the latter with the cooperation of the union.

Jackvony: ``We've consolidated on the administrative side and that is acceptable  and it makes sense. Now when you talk about the actual feet on the street, the firefighters who respond to the calls, yes we want to maintain a certain level of service that the people are already accustomed to. To consolidate and lose a fire truck and not have the fire truck 3 or 4 minutes down the road and have to wait 8 or 9 minutes to get the fire truck is not really a gain in my eyes; you might save a little more money, but it's a quality of life issue.''

Schmitt: ``Generally speaking I was in favor of a consolidation, but what the legislation didn't do is address the budget.''

Town Councilman Scott Schmitt  served on a subcommittee that studied a potential  merger. Schmitt ran for council last year after becoming interested in his own department, Cumberland Hill.

While he favors a merger, Schmitt wanted to see to see the first budget set - and not left open-ended.

Schmitt: ``Consolidation for consolidation's sake is almost meaningless unless you know what your budget is going to be.''

The combined budget of the four department is now about $7 million. Rescue service is run by the town and not part of the fire department's budgets. Schmitt wanted the merged department to begin with a $6.1 million budget, something that did not make the final legislation.

Schmitt: ``We didn't advocate for any layoffs, we were going to achieve the reduction through attrition.''

So it's likely residents are going to hear a lot about public safety and the budget numbers over the next two years.

Jackvony: ``I don't want see this become a shell game where we're going to cut the budgets and we're going to roll the dice that nothing's going to happen. Why would someone vote for consolidation and they have a fire truck around the corner from their house, and say we're going to consolidate and I'm going to wait longer.''

And most people agree what happens in Cumberland could be  a template for other cities and towns with multiple fire districts, to follow.

McKee: ``I think the communities who have this same sense or the same feeling that our residents did, we're one town, we should have one chief, one tax rate, one taxing strategy in town; those communities that feel they're going to look very strongly at the approach, and they're going to be able to actually streamline it.''

Jackvoy: ``Everybody has been watching the town of Cumberland not only here in Rhode island but I talk to other fire chiefs from Massachusetts and they say: We're watching the town of Cumberland to see what happens.''

In Cumberland, Jim Hummel, for The Hummel Report.