04/02/12 – Central Coventry Fire District Annual Meeting
For complete video from this meeting, see here.
Why am I in Coventry? At the high school. At a fire district meeting.
Well, back in 2007, the town consolidated four fire districts into one Central Coventry Fire District, with (some folks tell me) the promise of lowered costs. Instead, during the process of consolidating, various deficiencies were found in the buildings and equipment, around 10 full-time firefighters were hired, and the fire tax went up four times. That’s what I was told; an Internet search hasn’t led me to a decent summary of events.
Interestingly, an Internet search for variations of “Coventry fire district consolidation” turns up more stories about other RI municipalities citing Coventry as an example than explanations of what went on in the town when the change was actually made.
Back in October, when the annual meeting was supposed to be held, enough people showed up to create an hour-long wait in the rain to sign in. People who’ve attended local meetings at which similar outcry has emerged won’t be surprised to learn that the meeting ended before any votes were cast, and the meeting adjourned until tonight.
So, with confidence that plenty of other state-level media types will be covering the 13% tax-increase vote in Woonsocket, I thought I’d point my car a little to the south.
Of course, upon arrival, I discovered that I won’t have an exclusive, inasmuch as Jim Hummel picked the same spot to set up his cameras. So, the online-only media apparently thinks Coventry is important.
There’s clearly a quorum, although the crowd doesn’t appear to be as large as reports say the last meeting was. My rough estimate is 150 people.
Leo Blais called a point of order and stated that this is not a “special meeting,” but a continuation of the previous meeting. (Somebody booed when he introduced himself.) Blais moved to amend the agenda to pick up where the last meeting left off.
Board President Girard Bouchard ruled his motion out of order. Blais appealed. Bouchard told him his objection was noted.
Blais insisted that there had to be a vote of the body on his appeal. Bouchard whispered to the lawyerly looking guy next to him, and the folks running the show (i.e., those two) made it clear that the meeting was going to proceed.
I don’t know what rules they follow for these meetings, but if it’s Robert’s Rules, Blais is probably correct, to my experience, so he’ll have an opening for a lawsuit after the meeting… again, to my experience.
CCFD Chief Bob Seltzer is going over the budget that the voters will be considering. At the prior meeting, the board noted that over $800,000 of anticipated taxes were delinquent. (I think that was one of the reasons they adjourned the meeting.) Now they’re down to around $330,000 delinquent, the majority from 2010.
It’s a good thing the crowd isn’t as big as it might have been. I just asked for a copy of the report that they’re reviewing, and there are no more.
Taxpayer John Assalone is noting his discomfort with the their emphasis on collecting taxes from people who cannot afford them. “The taxes have gotten too high.”
Somebody called out while he was speaking: “Don’t you keep raising your rates?” It might have been the same guy I heard cursing in the lobby about how somebody among the tax hawks kept raising rental rates on somebody in his family.
Bouchard chastised the shouter.
The chief says that the district is not seeking any additional taxes, at this point. They’ve accepted the budget for review.
Assalone is back up, asking how $2.3 million in overtime was possible with something like 13 new firefighters. He described an incident at the middle school with a broken leg that had an overwhelming amount of coverage (two trucks, etc.).
The chief said the middle school is not in his district.
“This is not a little town fire department.” He noted that he’s got 50 people on staff (I think).
Somebody called out “we don’t need them.”
The chief responded with an emotive list of people they’ve helped. “Tell them we don’t need that level of service.” (paraphrase)
He explained that injuries and training and such have driven up overtime.
Assalone is back: The average firefighter is costing the community $90,000 per year. He’s moving to amend the budget to place a 4% cap on the next budget (if I heard right.)
Second amendment: Would cease all discussion of further consolidations that purport to save money but don’t until such time as the voters give permission.
Bouchard is saying that there are no negotiations for merging, but there is a commission researching it.
Third amendment: The board must live within the budget allocated at this meeting. “Shutting off the check book.” Excess receipts would be placed in an interest-bearing account until the next district meeting.
Fourth amendment: The board cannot hire a lawyer or use their existing council to challenge the decisions of the voters. They must use their own accounts, outside of the budget.
Fifth amendment: Another motion to limit them to the budget. (I missed the specifics.)
Sixth amendment: Directs the board to stop paying overtime for any employee. [Note: I think he should be handing in these amendments individually instead of as a package… some might pass without others.]
Shouting across the room; contention about whether somebody shouting out is actually a voter in this district. (I take it he’s a fireman.) He asked how they’re supposed to vote on something they haven’t read. (The amendments have, however, been read out loud, and the chairman is reading them again.)
Bouchard ruled the first amendment out of order because it pertains to the next fiscal year.
The chief said that the 4% cap is actually under discussion in the General Assembly, so they’re working on it anyway.
Bouchard is saying that he doesn’t see how they cannot not pay any overtime.
The chief asked if anybody has noticed that the tax rates went down after consolidation. Calls of “you haven’t presented it.”
Following on the chief’s breaking of decorum, the room broke down into shouts.
One guy, next to the other shouter: “You’re going to kill people by doing what you’re doing.”
Now questions about how many times a person can be out of order.
Another man, James Almagno (?), says he can live with the bill, as it amounts to a cup of coffee per day.
Taxpayer David Hull says he pays $1,800 a month for healthcare; he asks what the firefighters pay.
He went on to address the decorum of the meetings, meaning the firefighters: “It’s so aggressive; I don’t know if I want these guys in my house.”
Marie Fisher asked for assurance that the firefighters’ behavior didn’t constitute a threat (meaning the guy who said “this is going to kill people,” whose name, I think, is Mr. Gorman).
“It will change,” the same firefighter said, meaning service under a more restrictive budget.
Leonidas Raptakis: “We need a little more transparency.” “Why isn’t this budget posted on the Web site.”
Bouchard: “You’re out of order.”
He previously ruled the third amendment out of order. (Having been to a number of public meetings, I’m really not understanding what rules Mr. Bouchard is following.)
Bouchard read the amendment that allocates money to an interesting bearing account. “We already do that.”
The chief is arguing that they can’t put additional money in an account, if it comes from a designated-purpose grant. Bouchard ruled it out of order.
[I can’t resist suggesting that the tax-hawks in Coventry get themselves copies of Robert’s Rules. The chief and president are cutting the people out of this meeting in several ways.]
The chief is objecting to the amendment about hiring a lawyer. “We need council for day to day operations.”
Assalone is saying that it’s not a matter of day-to-day operations, but of fighting back against the voters.
The chief argues that they may need council if the voters force them to do something incorrect.
Back and forth between Assalone and the president about chapter 9 bankruptcy.
Another member of the audience is complaining that he can’t follow what’s going on because there’s no order to the meeting. He says he was a firefighter and in the military and protected the rights of the board and the firefighters. “Stop talking about being heroes and do your damn job.”
Now amendment 5 is ruled out of order, but Bouchard’s changing numbers around, so I’m not sure which is which.
Another audience member to Bouchard: “What are your qualifications for your job.”
Bouchard: You have to be a registered voter, present signatures, and run.
The chief is whispering something with Bouchard.
Two amendments have survived the crucible of “out of order.”
Another taxpayer is saying that the amendments are going to put people at risk, because unforeseen events can force the budget over the budget.
Assalone is arguing that nobody will challenge emergency spending. “This is a new guideline.” He doesn’t believe that anybody will do that.
Leo Blais challenged the ruling of the chair on the out-of-order amendments. “So noted,” said Bouchard. [It seems to me that Blais is likely just laying groundwork to invalidate the meeting subsequently.]
The chief just read out the amendments prior to the vote. Now he’s offering his commentary on them, even though Bouchard had said that commentary was closed and the vote had been called.
Now Assalone is back up to respond. “The taxpayers should get involved and ask the questions that have to be asked before any further discussion of consolidation.”
A woman sitting with the firefighters shouted something out.
The chief’s commenting on the second amendment. Assalone is back up. They’re debating face-to-face.
The Chief: “Nobody has lived through a recession like this.”
Assalone mentioned the pension problem for the overall community.
Raptakis asked how they’re going to vote (voice, hand, ballot). Then there was some conversation about having a colored card received when they came in the room. Raptakis doesn’t have one. Very confusing.
The voice vote on passing the amendments was too close (it sounded like the Yays had it).
Now they’re doing a hand count. The woman doing the counting is just standing at the front of the room counting. [Over in Tiverton, at financial town meetings, counters use a clicker and point the person so that he or she will know to lower the voting hand.)
The nay hands weren’t even close; the amendments pass.
Blais is making an amendment. He directs everybody’s attention to a line item calling for $5.2 million in revenue and says that tax receipts have never been that much. Blais amended to lower the budget by (it sounded like) about a million dollars.
Bouchard wouldn’t let Blais explain his amendment to the audience. Then he made a comment about how it represented a cut. Then he asked Blais to explain.
Blais is explaining that the budget is a fiction. “Any way you add it up, it’s $1.2 million in the hole today.”
He says they’re “pretending” several budget related items. The chief began arguing with him, but the crowd shouted at him that he didn’t have the floor.
Bouchard called Blais out of order and grabbed the microphone from his hand. Much audience consternation. “If he can’t speak, you can’t!”
Caroline York is asking about $13,000 for leased computers.
Another woman disbelieves that the computers won’t need to be upgraded.
The chief is explaining that they’re specially rated computers.
Bouchard tried to call a vote on the budget without Blais’s amendment. Blais objected. Bouchard said he lacked “specificity.”
Blais is now presenting the line-item amounts.
Blais wants to delete a bunch of expenses. Lower payroll amounts. Take dollars out of the budget for hydrants and street lighting.
“The whole purpose of this is to cut the expenditures.”
“I want to give them a bottom line of $5 million, and let them figure out how they get there.”
Chief: We have to pay for the hydrants. “They will come after us.”
Chief: “We pay rental on the hydrants.” Kent County can come after them.
Audience question: How many hydrants do we need?
Chief: ISO requirements; there’s nothing we can do with them. “Kent County’s water rates are extremely high; they’re set by the PUC.”
Chief: They’ll turn off streetlights if you want.
Audience: You already shut them off.
Chief: Says you can’t cut all the overtime out. “If you want us to go back and present another budget, you have to let us do that.”
The chief is now arguing with the audience.
Assalone asked to respond. The chief said, “Sure.” Bouchard says he can’t.
Now the chief is accusing people of dishonesty and promoting falsehoods in public.
“People take too much information, and you throw it all over the place, and you make everybody look bad. And it’s not the truth.”
“You’re forcing me to lay off people. Who’s going to die tomorrow?”
Blais seemed to indicate that layoffs might be a good idea. Somebody in the audience asked why there aren’t anymore volunteers.
Now Bouchard is talking about streetlights.
He says Johnston is being sued right now by the PUC because they stopped paying the bill for streetlights.
John Botello: Objects to Blais’s clapping about laying off firefighters. He’s giving anecdotes, the first about a gas leak. He also had a fire in his walls at some point.
Now there’s a back and forth with the audience about other anecdotes.
Botello: Third occasion was a mother-in-law’s broken ankle. “Why are we going to jeopardize lives and safety.”
As Botello sat down, somebody commented that he must be a firefighter. Botello: “Yes, I am.”
Assalone is responding to the chief regarding suggestions that taxpayers are lying.
Blais’s amendment is now up for a vote.
Oh wait, the chief gets another comment. “This budget cannot take another million dollar cut.” “It will affect everybody’s service and the service of the other fire districts.”
“If you want to hurt everybody in the town of Coventry, you can do that, and it’s on your back, not mine, not the board.”
Now, shortly after implying that somebody will die tomorrow, the chief suggests that emotions get into the mix and bad decisions get made.
Bouchard called the vote, but then he allowed another question: “What’s going to happen” if Blais is right and the taxes don’t come in as projected?
Bouchard: We’ll address that when it happens.
The chief is explaining that he keeps “very close tabs” on the money situation. Last year, they deferred overtime and did comp time.
Another question (Meredith Allen) about tax sales. Bouchard and the chief are talking about the process.
Votes on the amendment. The nays had it, but not by much more than the first voice vote, which went the other way. Bouchard says the nays win.
Now he’s calling the budget. It sounded very close, to me, but Bouchard called it for the yays.
Blais called for a standing vote.
Bouchard says that’s not necessary.
Calls of “You’re wrong. We want it.”
Then he changed his mind.
Blais appealed, but Bouchard ignored him.
They’ve moved on to the next agenda items, having to do with the charter. Blais wanted to amend it. Bouchard grabbed the microphone again.
Sen. Nick Kettle is clarifying that no charter changes have been submitted for ratification. “I don’t want anybody being misled by the chief.”
Bouchard moved to adjourn. Raptakis asked if the budget will be online.
And they’re done.
After the meeting, I overheard Blais telling the stenographer that he’ll need the transcript very soon… meaning litigation.