The forum Monday night hosted by the Town Council and the Fire District Commissioners brought out two different visions of the future of fire service for the town, with members of both panels on both sides of the issue.
The forum was held to explore the nonbinding referendum question that will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot:
Are you in favor of merging the East Greenwich Fire District into the Town of East Greenwich, the result of which would be that the Town would maintain a municipal fire department and the separate Fire District would cease to exist?
Town Councilor Jeff Cianciolo – the one who proposed the idea of the ballot question in July – spoke first.
"This town has two governments," he said. The Town of EG has a lengthy and public election process, he said, whereas the EG Fire District's election process operates "off the grid."
Cianciolo noted in the 2010 town election, each of the five Town Council winners received more than 3,300 votes. By contrast, he said, one of the Fire Commissioners elected last June, received a total of 42 votes.
He said the EGFD represented a "democracy vacuum."
Cianciolo found fault with this idea that a town of 13,000 people had two governments, noting that EG, and the state itself, has too much government.
"East Greenwich voters have an opportunity to take a small step towards reducing the size of government in Rhode Island. We can do this. We can eliminate this dual government."
Cianciolo also argued that there would be savings in a merger, although he and others agreed with the EGFD's assessment that a merger would not see vast savings.
Bill Daly, head of the Fire Commissioners spoke next.
"We’ve been around a long time … providing good, efficient service," he said. "Why would you want to change that?"
He dismissed Cianciolo's contention that operation of the Fire District was a closed process, noting monthly public meetings held at Town Hall.
"It’s there, it’s an open process," he said.
"We do a very good job of managing your money," he continued. "When there’s a rescue vehicle that needs to be replaced, we’ve got the money."
He voiced the fear that a merger would mean fire service would get less attention.
"The town has eight different areas of concern. If you add a fire department, you really do lose control," he argued.
Financially, Daly said, the Fire District is in very strong shape.
"We have no debt on the books," he said, noting they have a $900,000 vehicle replacement fund in place so they don't need to go out to bond when a new truck needs to be purchased.
A lot of that money comes from building impact fees paid by residential and commercial developers. Daly warned there would be lower impact fees if fire service was offered by the town because the town does not collect impact fees from commercial developers.
Town Council Chairman Michael Isaacs responded that the Council had specifically avoided commercial development impact fees in an effort to spur that kind of development.
Daly said developers weren't scared away by the EGFD impact fees, citing the new sports training center and medical office building going up on South County Trail today.
"I think they haven’t had any kind of dampening effect on business," he said.
Daly argued the path to saving money is through regionalizing fire services.
One reason the Fire District is in good financial shape, said Isaacs, is through free help from the town, including such things as maintenance of roads and police service. The town also provides some tech support and does payroll and billing for the district.
Fire Commissioner Phillip Higgins asked the Council if they'd studied just what was involved in a merger. The district's lawyer, Scott Spear, then spoke about all the hurdles he foresaw in merging the two entities, from charter changes and contract renegotiations to the politics of getting General Assembly approval – which would be required.
Isaacs countered: "I think we need to look at, not get bogged down in, the details. Look at the larger question: What do we want our town to look like?"
Councilor Michael Kiernan was the lone town voice against the merger. "This is a drastic measure," he said. He took issue again with the wording of the ballot question itself, which he said was pro-merger.
Mark Gee, who sits on both the Town Council and the Board of Commissioners, was the only Fire Commissioner who said he'd be voting for the merger. Commissioner Mark Schwager did not say how he would vote, but said consolidation was already taking place and would continue.
"There are so many complicated issues that will drive these two together over time. If it does take years, that gives both bodies time to grow together," he said.
Check back tomorrow morning for video clips from the forum.