Fire district board tries to unravel financial nightmare

LINCOLN, RI (WPRI) — The Lonsdale Fire District Board is still trying to determine the depth of its financial quagmire that led to the decision to lay off the district’s five full-time firefighters, Target 12 has learned.

In the meantime, Lincoln Town Administrator Joseph Almond emphasized that taxpayers in that part of town will be protected by firefighters from the adjacent Saylesville Fire District, as well as from Lincoln’s other four districts whenever necessary.

“I met with the chiefs this morning,” Almond said. “We have a plan in place that will keep everyone safe.”

But Almond acknowledged unraveling the district’s financial mess will not be easy and may take a while. According to Almond, the town noticed potential issues about two years ago, and all but one of the district’s board members quit at the beginning of this year.

Only Joe Tashash stayed on the board and was left with the task of helping to appoint new members who are now trying to figure out how much is owed, and how much tax revenue can be expected after the bills go out later this year. The new board members waived the stipends that are usually paid to district board members. Tashash was unavailable to comment on the situation.

Some of the five firefighters who were laid off were clearing out their personal belongings from the fire station today, with one saying while he knew about the district’s financial issues, the layoffs were a surprise. He added that he is hopeful the board will figure out the mess, and bring the firefighters back on the payroll.

By the numbers, Lonsdale’s most recent annual budget was pegged at about $600,000 a year according to the town. Almond said payroll averages about $7,000 a week, and there is about $14,500 left in the district’s bank account. Almond said it got so bad last year, the board used the fire station building to secure a $100,000 line of credit that has since been paid back.

“We don’t know what caused it,” Almond said. “Was it management, accounting, the way taxes were collected? The board is working on figuring that out.”

Long term, Almond said the town plans on going to the general assembly to potentially get a law passed that would allow Lincoln to consolidate its six fire districts into one entity. He expects to have a study on consolidation completed in about two months.

“But passing that law could take four years,” Almond said. “We obviously need a contingency plan, and we’ve been working on it for over a month.”

According to Almond, the situation was bad enough that it could’ve warranted intervention by the state, but he said the Department of Revenue gave the okay to the district’s current plan. Governor Gina Raimondo’s spokesperson Marie Aberger said Smith Hill is watching.

“The state is monitoring this situation closely,” Aberger said. “Safety will remain the number one priority as any decisions are made.”

East Greenwich and Cumberland have recently consolidated their fire districts. State Senator Ryan Pearson, who represents Cumberland and Lincoln, was part of the process in Cumberland.

“It was grueling, both politically and personally,” Pearson said. “But we see there’s a lot of savings on overhead. The multiple chiefs, the multiple tax collectors and a lot of spare equipment that you can borrow from another station now that they’re not separate districts.”

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau.

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