By Michael B. Isaacs
A recent report by the Town Manager seems to question the 2013 acquisition of the formerly independent Fire District by the Town. The analysis did not address the larger public policy considerations and did not look at what is best for the Town and its residents in terms of governmental structure and sound government going forward. In the numbers, it did not account for the fact that certain Fire District expenses were being paid by the Town.
First, some history. One of the biggest complaints about Rhode Island is the amount of government in this small geographic area. In an area approximate in size to some counties in other states, we have 39 cities and towns, 36 (regular and regional) school districts and more fire districts than municipalities. In 2013, East Greenwich actually did something about too much redundant government – the independent Fire District was eliminated and the fire department moved into the municipal government as a Town department. This was sound public policy in 2013 and is sound public policy today.
If we were designing a governmental structure today, we would not set up two governments, one for the fire department and another for all the other governmental functions. That would not be cost-effective and it would not be good government. As to governance, the Town Council is elected in a general election with town-wide voting. The Fire District Commissioners were elected at a Fire District meeting at which the quorum was 30 voters. So, while getting only 16 votes, someone could become a Fire District Commissioner and set 10 percent of the taxes residents and businesses paid.
Concern over taxes, various governance issues and public policy concerns led the Town Council to propose a referendum on the Fire District. The voters overwhelmingly supported a merger, with 66.4 percent voting in favor. Legislation to effectuate the merger was passed by the General Assembly and signed by the governor.
Besides the public policy reasons, there were immediate obvious cost savings. Both the Town and Fire District had separate legal counsel, separate auditors, separate clerks and other separate outside contractors. It should be noted that immediate cost savings were not as high as might have been expected in some other areas because the Town was already providing some services to the Fire District at no cost – tax billing and collection, accounts payable and payroll, information technology support, unified phone system, snow plowing, moving the Fire Marshal’s office to the building inspector’s office to create one stop for building approvals, DPW repairing Fire District vehicles and construction of a water line. Except for the sharing of the costs of a mechanic for vehicle repairs, the Town did not bill the Fire District for the services provided. The costs were on the Town’s books. In providing these services, the Town Council believed that it was more important to reduce overall costs for taxpayers than to focus on cost allocations. It is also why the Fire District expenses and taxes were in reality understated. These facts were not taken into account in the numbers in the recent presentation.
The Town Manager and Town Council at the time did conduct due diligence and were well aware of the Fire District budget, finances and pension obligations. The merger was pursued for both financial reasons and taxpayer concerns and public policy reasons and to establish a better government structure going forward. In this regard, it should be noted that tax increases by the municipal government were less than and more stable than those of the old Fire District. Furthermore, the state’s 4 percent tax cap on municipal taxes did not apply to Fire District taxes.
As to due diligence regarding the Fire District Commissioners’ decision to impose commercial impact fees, I am unclear what is being suggested. Ten years later, should the Town Council have done a legal analysis of the impact fee vote and concluded that ten years later the impact fees would be found to be illegal by the state Supreme Court?
I also do not see how the analysis provides any help in addressing any current issues. Whether there was an independent Fire District or a Town fire department, any financial costs would need to be addressed by exactly the same taxpayers since the old Fire District and Town government covered the same geographic area and taxed the same people and businesses.
The Fire District merger was sound public policy and beneficial to the taxpayers of East Greenwich when it was accomplished and it remains sound public policy and beneficial today.
Michael B. Isaacs served as East Greenwich Town Council president from 2004 to 2016.