East Greenwich Fire District: Taking Some Heat From Residents

A previous posting identified some important questions in the new budget for the East Greenwich Fire District.
The first news report on tonight’s annual financial meeting of the District is in from the ProJo and it sounds like it was an appropriately contentious meeting:

The largest turnout of East Greenwich Fire District voters in years heaped criticism on the district’s leadership during a four-hour annual meeting last night, but nevertheless adopted a $4.3-million budget virtually unchanged from the one proposed by the Board of Fire Commissioners.
The only thing they cut was a $28,200 proposal to pay for health insurance for the five commissioners in the fiscal year beginning July 1. That item was removed from the budget in a unanimous voice vote.
There were 127 voters at the meeting at its peak, although some trickled out of Swift Gym as the evening wore on. Last year’s meeting drew one-fourth as many.
Voter after voter criticized the commissioners, questioning the need for a string of new spending proposals and urging the board to tighten its purse strings…
The voters also fired the chairman of the board in a landslide vote…
In what seemed a reflection of the crowd’s mood, the voters removed Joseph Carnevale Jr., the chairman and the only commissioner whose post had expired, and replaced him with newcomer Christine Mattos…who spoke skeptically about new spending proposals.
Mattos prevailed 111 votes to 25 in a paper ballot…
The voters also rejected a proposal to borrow $550,000 in bonds to buy a two-acre parcel at 1454 South County Trail for an eventual third fire station…
But the voters approved one contentious proposal included in the budget measure, to hire four additional firefighters in the next fiscal year, at a projected cost of $165,000…
…the department eventually needs eight more firefighters, which would bring the department’s total to 40…
The spending plan adopted last night represents a 16 percent increase over the budget for the current fiscal year. It would raise taxes…by about 19 percent. A new tax rate was not announced last night, as district officials were recalculating based on the voters’ changes.

Thanks to all the residents who showed up. Christine will be a great addition as a new Commissioner. She is smart and tenacious, attributes she will need in spades given the spendthrift ways of this Fire District Board.
A 16% increase in spending leading to a 19% increase in taxes. Hardly a successful bottom line. (Nearly one-third of the increase was due to required state pension contributions, something that is out of their control.)
To put the 16% spending increase in personal terms, consider this question: What would your spouse say if you came home and announced you had unilaterally increased family spending by 16% even though your family’s income only increased by 3-4%? Your spouse would be rightfully indignant and point out that the money to cover the new spending would have to come from (i) reducing your savings; (ii) incurring new debt; and/or (iii) reducing spending on current items like clothes or medical care – all of which would reduce your family’s standard of living.
Why are the spending behaviors of families so different from the public sector’s spending habits? Because families spend their own hard-earned monies, not somebody else’s money. Which is why Calvin Coolidge is reported to have said:

Nothing is easier than spending the public money. It does not appear to belong to anybody. The temptation is overwhelming to bestow it on somebody.

More on the East Greenwich Fire District meeting as people write or call me with updates from tonight’s meeting.
An EMT has written the following in the comment section to this posting:

I suppose that if the residents of East Greenwhich don’t want the fire protection they deserve, that is their right. I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t force people to care about themselves or even their families.
Besides, fires happen to someone else, right?
But I don’t want to hear a single complaint when someone’s house burns down or someone dies waiting for medical aid.

Talk about changing the subject! But, it is the classic “fear” comment used to intimidate taxpayers which has been referenced in an earlier posting. After all, residents approved a budget that includes hiring the requested additional firefighters.
The issue here is a 16% spending increase in a 2% inflation world. It is not about providing enough to do fire coverage right.
To reinforce these points, consider this commentary from one resident who attended the meeting:

The commissioners underestimated the growing level of unrest in Town…and the willingness of residents to embrace so many (expensive) projects concurrently.
It has been my experience (and frustration) with the presentation…of the Fire District Budget that little if any consideration is given to the audience. There is a tremendous amount of information to synthesize and make sense of in short time. Most residents do not have much if any experience in reading financial statements. The Deputy Chief tried very hard to justify the wants…there just wasn’t any common sense justification for the needs.
A formal PowerPoint presentation would have been helpful along with a comprehensive budget narrative. Expenditure line itemizations, grant accounting, and multi year forecasting would have been helpful. Most disappointing of all was the motion made by Commissioner Berlyn to move to vote on the budget, thus ending any debate, or modifications beyond the $22k for health insurance (for commissioners)…Mr. Delfino did not present a good 80% of the budget, but rather touched on items of interest to him…

In other words, they are increasing spending by 16% and did not give attendees – who fund their operation – the courtesy of even an attempt at explaining the nature of the increases. Instead they cut off the debate and forced a vote.
Plus there was no information on actual spending for the fiscal year just ended. If actual spending for that year came in below budget, then the new budget represents an increase of over 16%. Instead of answering that question, they cut off debate and forced a vote.
Plus they have $1.8 million of cash sitting in their bank account, which means they have overtaxed the residents by a hefty sum in recent years. There was no explanation about how that cash might be properly utilized. Instead of addressing that issue, they cut off debate and forced a vote.
All of this is irresponsible behavior and deserving of criticism. After all, we are talking about their use of OUR money. Let’s try to stay on topic.
A new ProJo article notes that the 16% spending increase will “only” increase taxes by a lesser amount – currently estimated at 8% – due to a growing tax base in town. That doesn’t change any of the conclusions noted above.
Be sure to read the second posting in the comment section for additional thoughts on what is going on in the Fire District.
The East Greenwich Pendulum reports:

While the issue of health insurance for the volunteer commissioners drew many to the meeting, residents spoke out against the 19 percent increase of the budget over last year.
“Somebody’s got to look at these numbers. I’ve done budgets my whole life and they just don’t add up,” said four-year resident Doug Axelsen, scrutinizing the 13 percent salary and 43 percent fringe benefit increases. “How can everyday citizens afford these increases? I think we can make (the town) better, but not on the backs of everybody.”
Axelsen’s comment drew applause and cheers from the 130-plus in attendance. Living in a “modest” home, Axelsen said the $6000 he pays in town and fire taxes represents ten percent of his family’s total income.

Aren’t you a bit curious about why and how salaries had to increase 13% and fringe benefits increase 43% in one year? Do people feel like the Fire District offered responsible answers to all residents?
But there are even bigger governance and accountability issues, as noted in this story from the North East Independent on the Fire District meeting:

…The $4.3 million budget, which included a proposal to add four firefighters to the force, passed narrowly. A resolution to purchase a new pumper truck at a net cost of $251,000 also passed…
…residents were highly critical of plans to build the new station and add up to eight new firefighters, saying the district had not adequately looked at other solutions before proposing such high-cost answers.
Fire officials were stunned as the land measure was defeated in a vote in which many resident firefighters voted against the proposal. Fire Chief Thomas Rowan, clearly upset by the vote, said he and Deputy Chief John McKenna did all they could to show that the new station was necessary.
“I am a professional. I make recommendations based on my years of professional experience,” Rowan said after the meeting adjourned. “If they want to vote to reject that recommendation, they certainly have that right. We’ll see, down the road, if it costs somebody their lives.
“I don’t live in East Greenwich,” he added. “I’ve got nothing to lose.”
Officials sought to purchase a two-acre parcel near the Rocky Hill fairgrounds because of development planned for that property. The board had negotiated a deal to purchase the land for $675,000, a price that would have been partially offset by more than $130,000 in impact fees. From there, board members planned to introduce plans for the new station over the next year, with the whole process taking up to five years.
Residents accused district officials of springing the plan on them without doing their homework first. Town Planning Board member Robert Holbrook said the town will have a lot on its hands with discussions about a referendum for a new police station and other plans already taking place. He said the district should complete a needs assessment, formulate a plan and allow time for proper public discussion.
“It warrants more attention than is being paid to it tonight at this meeting,” he said…
The vote to deny the land purchase came even though McKenna warned the residents in attendance that the district’s fire coverage was woefully inadequate. With only two firefighters on at a time at the Frenchtown Road station and four at the Main Street station, studies showed that 33 percent of the district’s runs were outside of acceptable standards, with 21 percent of those clocking in at six or more minutes…

The Fire Chief’s behavior is arrogant and even incompetent. As these postings have noted, they did not prepare the community for their major request in advance of the meeting and they did not present a thorough analysis of their request at the meeting. And, if it was such a good proposal, why did EG resident firefighters vote against it?
This is about Governance 101 which leads to Accountability 101. As a corporate CEO, I wouldn’t dare think of proposing such a major change without first having talked to my investors (equivalent to residents on this issue) and Board members. I certainly would never ask any of them to approve such a major issue immediately after hearing about it for the first time – which is what the Fire Chief did. And my Board would shred me – with just cause – if I told them to approve it without rigorous analysis and simply because it made sense in my professional judgment. All corporate Boards have a fiduciary responsibility to all shareholder investors and that means their governance role is to hold the CEO accountable and to certain minimum performance standards. Accountability 101 is what the residents attending the FTM did to the Fire District leadership.
A leader with integrity would have responded by accepting the legitimate nature of the criticisms and developing solid plans in response to the limits approved by residents.
Instead, the Fire Chief responded like a petulant child who didn’t get his way: “We’ll see, down the road, if it costs somebody their lives. I don’t live in East Greenwich. I’ve got nothing to lose.”
He, indeed, does have something to lose – his reputation and credibility as a professional. He severely damaged it this week with those words. People will remember his performance this week when he makes his next request of taxpayers.
Instead of accountability in the public sector, all we get are threats. And that leads to a lack of trust in our public officials.
We can only hope the Fire Chief gets a dose of reality in the coming days and does what is right for our town. After all, that’s what real professionals do.

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18 years ago

I suppose that if the residents of East Greenwhich don’t want the fire protection they deserve, that is their right. I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t force people to care about themselves or even their families.
Besides, fires happen to someone else, right?
But I don’t want to hear a single complaint when someone’s house burns down or someone dies waiting for medical aid.

I'm no EMT but
I'm no EMT but
18 years ago

First of all. What an excellent BLOG. With regard to the posted comment from the EMT I agree with Mr. Hawthorne, but I’ll go one step further,your scare tactic is pure B.S. Your a union firefighter just trying to build your empire larger in EG. Show me where in the history of EG someone died or their house burned down because EGFD failed to respond. None. EG may not have always had a large response crew, but that is what the statewide mutual aid pact is for. Hmmm didn’t the Warwick Fire Chief just say that about Potowomut!! Why is it this EG fire chief did not support the volunteers, did not attempt to put a good faith effort into keeping the volunteers in EG, but immediately setout to build the union force larger and tossed the remaining volunteers out as quick as he could. Could it be he didn’t have the skills to work with volunteers. Warwick got rids of them years ago and he came from Warwick didn’t he….. With regards to the property purchase amount that was rejected by the voters, where were the facts ? Where was the lastest Insurance Service Office (ISO) report (measures fire dept response abilities and rate them on a national scale, which ultimately effects your insurance rates. EG’s rate is a 4/9 out of a possible 10, this is a good rating) indicating the best possible station location. It was not on route 2 that is for sure. Where are the time trials to show the length of response time from each station to points west of route 2? where are the stats? Where is the relation of response to call locations showing real time response times. If the growth is in the west end of town then route 2 would… Read more »

I'm no EMT but
I'm no EMT but
18 years ago

I stand corrected in my last comment. After reading the last few updates I see I was wrong about EMT. It is not his fault he used scare tactics, he obviously learned that it’s OK to have an arrogant screw you attitude as the example that have been set by Chief Rowan. To me it is one thing to have a disagreement when in public service with a taxpayer or too over time. However, in his case this insult with such arrogance and high an might attitude, well, I am just beside myself. I’m sorry but I guess I saw this coming. Several years ago when he first became Chief they had a fire resulting in a double fatality in EG. Chief Rowan was so very quick to blame it on the lack of manpower in EG. ProJo covered this fire very well. One thing that caught my attention in the ProJo article was the lack of compassion and concern to the men and women of EGFD. He went to great lengths to praise Warwick who came to this fire on mutual aid, but not his own people. What a shame. It was this shoot from the hip professionalism that concerned me and the fact that this would eventually lead to a lawsuit that would cost us the taxpayes dearly. Of course the fire commissioners kept this so very hush hush, you hardy noticed it in there meets and budget…. What did that cost us Fire Commissioners!!! I’m sure your insurance rates jumped after that or are you still waiting for you court date….. We are now seeing the real Chief Rowan, he is only interested in what good for him and his professional (anoth name for union firefighters) and it’s not the concerns of the taxpayer. He forgets he’s… Read more »

18 years ago

Sorry, I’m not a union firefighter. Thanks for jumping to a conclusion though, it shows where your biases are. Calling concern for EG residents “scare tactics” is the last refuge of someone who can’t rationally defend not ensuring the protection for his family and fellow citizens. A 4/9 rating should NOT be acceptable to any rationally-thinking taxpayer. A split rating indicates that part of EG is not getting the same protection as the rest. Why should SOME of the town have adequate fire protection? Are the lives of those who live in the Class 9 area worth less? Of course, the 4/9 was the “most recent” rating the town received- ISO surveys only occur every 10-15 *years* unless the department requests a new rating sooner. So, theoretically, that 4/9 you’re so proud of could have been given in 1990. I’m sure it was more recently than that, but when? If everything you say about Chief Rowan is true, combined with the local apathy for fire protection that you display, I would imagine that the rating would very well be lower if a new survery were conducted today. I’m glad you brought up the double-fatal fire. As I understand it, when the second victim was removed from the building, a firefighter had to actually run back to the firehouse to bring a rescue vehicle to the scene. Is that acceptable to you as a resident? It shouldn’t be. Mutual aid from out of town can NOT provide you, an EG resident, adequate protection. There has NEVER been a life saved in a structure fire by a fire company that responded on mutual aid. There’s a reason Warwick is preparing to end the Potowomut contract- EGFD can’t guaruntee they’ll show up, and if they do it’ll be 4 people max. A timely… Read more »

Donald B. Hawthorne
Donald B. Hawthorne
18 years ago

It would be healthy for East Greenwich to have a public debate on the issues raised in these comments. Such a debate would educate and raise public awareness, all of which can only be for the better. The Fire Chief is reponsible for ensuring that debate occurs and its absence reflects poorly on him and other leaders in the Fire District. And that gets to the core points contained in my two postings which have focused on three performance problems which remain unaddressed: First, what the Fire Chief and his team did was NOT engage in any such educational public debate. Instead we got an imperious one-time statement that effectively communicated the point that “you should do it because I know more than you.” That is arrogant, counter-productive, and worthy of criticism. It is our money and he needs to be diligent in explaining why he wants to spend it in the proposed ways. He needs to remember that he works for us. Second, the arrogant behavior toward residents correlates with the Fire District’s recent financial performance – operating without public visibility while engineering extremely high spending increases even as cash balances grow to excessive levels in their bank account. Their performance comes across as undisciplined and disinterested in being held accountable for their own performance. They seem to forget that they are spending our hard-earned money. Third, acting like a petulant child when not getting his way is unprofessional behavior for which the Fire Chief deserves to be criticized. He didn’t do his job and then he blames us. It will only make his job of persuading us in the future more challenging but, if he has any common sense, he will work diligently to repair the damage caused by his actions. I hope he does so; other residents… Read more »

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