Monday night’s (Oct. 17) public forum on the future of the EG Fire District was a mini-course in what stalls change in Rhode Island.
The EG Fire District was formed back in 1797, and by all accounts has done an excellent job of fulfilling its responsibilities ever since. But things have changed in 215 years.
Today, many of its back office functions – billings, collections, etc. – by mutual agreement are being done by the Town, leaving the Fire District to concentrate on fire and safety functions. Taxpayers are already reaping the benefits of savings due to financial consolidation. So the question now is, who’s in charge here? And to whom is the Fire District responsible?
The Fire District absorbs about 10 percent of the town’s taxes, elects Commissioners by vote with as few as 30 voters required, and because of its state charter, is responsible primarily to, well, itself.
No, it really doesn’t make sense, but the Fire District – all but one of the five Commissioners (including one member of the Town Council and another running for higher office), the Fire Chief and his deputy, and the District’s legal counsel –lined up shoulder to shoulder to defend the continuance of what is clearly an archaic organizational structure, what Town Councilor Jeff Cianciolo called "operating in a democracy vacuum.”
Voters will have a say in what happens with the Fire District in November, through a non-binding referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot. Passage will almost certainly trigger a move to a binding referendum on a subsequent ballot, or it may be enough to trigger faster action by the Town and Fire District.
But while it is East Greenwich and its Fire District under the microscope, the overarching issue is the knee-jerk reaction of government in Rhode Island to protect itself from what is clearly a changed public interest.
Rhode Island is a small place, but we have Big Place government. A large state government. Five counties. 39 city and town governments. A similar number of local school committees. A large and largely independently-operating judiciary. 40 fire districts. And countless other entities employing thousands of people on missions we cannot even begin to understand at the cost of millions of dollars.
And when the word "consolidation" is uttered, the tendency is for each of these entities via their managements and their boards to cry, “You need us!”
Well, maybe we do, and maybe we don’t. But let us at least ask the question. And let the taxpayers decide what is needed and what isn’t.
This is the era of consumer choice. And we need to have more choice when it comes to how we are governed here in Rhode Island.