Thank you for adding to the growing public attention now being focused on Rhode Island’s 43 independent fire districts (“More oversight of fire districts needed,” May 20, 2013). Although your editorial applauds fire district consolidation being considered in Lincoln and Cumberland, I am pleased to report that the Town Council and voters of East Greenwich are on the verge of eliminating their fire district and merging the former fire district personnel and assets into a newly created town fire department.
East Greenwich is a town of 13,000 residents, a geographic area of 16 square miles and two separate and independent municipal governments – the town of East Greenwich and the East Greenwich Fire District. As a long-time resident, I could never understand why two governments were needed for a town of our size. Elected as a member of the Town Council in 2010 and re-elected in 2012, I set on a path to eliminate this archaic relic of old Rhode Island.
As with any status quo change in Rhode Island, this was no easy task. The fire district commissioners, who are the “elected” representatives of the voters, have thwarted any efforts to interfere with their little fiefdom for decades. (I use the term “elected” loosely: Fire district commissioners are elected at a poorly advertised 30-person quorum town hall-style annual meeting.)
Without the commissioners’ cooperation, I proposed a town referendum on the November 2012 ballot to determine if the voters supported merging the fire district into the town. After a series of pre-election public meetings and a public forum debating the merger, the voters approved the referendum by an overwhelming two-to-one margin.
With the assistance of our state legislators, bills to approve the merger were introduced in the General Assembly. The local firefighters’ union joined town councilors in testifying in support of the legislation, and both chambers passed the bill by unanimous votes. We await Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee’s signature to make this law (we anticipate this will occur by the first week of June).
Opposition to our efforts was either intellectually dishonest or in the spirit of “if ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” East Greenwich believed its dual system of government was “broke” and is now fixing it. East Greenwich taxpayers will immediately realize approximately $100,000 of savings. Other intangible and financial savings will arise by eliminating the wall of bureaucracy that stands between the fire district and the town. The town voters will now benefit from a better opportunity to participate in the election of their government officials.
Change is possible in Rhode Island. The big picture lesson in going from 43 to 42 fire districts may be that change needs to be accomplished in little bites.