COVENTRY, R.I. (WPRI) — After confirming it won’t be able to make payroll this week, the board of the Coventry Fire District says it has no choice but to consider laying off all of their firefighters.
The board is expected to vote Monday night on the potential layoffs, which if approved would essentially shut down the district.
Board Chairman Frank Palin wrote a letter to town officials that the district won’t be able to make payroll September 4, and fire taxes from the district’s 9,000 residents won’t cover the costs.
“The choices are both bad,” Palin said Sunday. “We lay them all off – we have no fire service. We don’t lay them off – we’re in violation of state labor laws because we don’t pay them. What do we do?”
Coventry residents voted in June to close down the district rather than approve a supplemental tax increase.
In a letter obtained exclusively by Eyewitness News, the receiver for the Central Coventry Fire District wrote to Palin in June that the neighboring district’s personnel would not be able to cover the Coventry Fire District if the board decides to close it down.
The Central Coventry Fire District filed for bankruptcy in December. Soon after the letter was written in June, the organization that analyzes fire protection risk for insurance companies dropped the district’s classification to its lowest possible rating.
David Gorman, President of the Coventry Professional Firefighters Union, believes Palin’s plan is merely a political threat. He said the union has offered a number of concessions to the board, including the elimination of overtime and a reduction in force.
Both Gorman and Palin have said they wish the town of Coventry would step up, but Town Manager Tom Hoover said the fire districts are chartered by the state, and the town can’t take them over or form its own fire department without taxpayer approval.
“The big problem here is the town has no jurisdiction,” said Hoover. “I don’t see the majority of our town council being in favor of a merger or a combination or a municipal fire department at this time.”
Marie Aberger, a spokesperson for Gov. Gina Raimondo, said the governor’s office sent a letter to town officials in July saying they need to take responsibility for the cash-strapped fire district. She issued the following statement Monday.
As the Governor has said many times, municipalities have a responsibility to provide basic services to their residents – including public safety. The state is in regular contact with municipal officials, and stands ready to offer technical assistance and financial advice if requested.
“A number of municipalities in Rhode Island have recognized the need to reduce costs by consolidating fire districts, including Cumberland and East Greenwich. The Governor believes this is an opportunity for local leaders in Coventry – and across the state – to look at best practices for streamlining services, enhancing accountability, and delivering better value to taxpayers. It’s clear it is time to move with urgency, make tough choices, and lay the groundwork for economic growth for our families and our future.”
Last month, a group handed town officials a petition with 107 signatures calling for a special meeting to recall Palin from his position.
Three of the five board members would have to vote in favor of layoffs in order for the district to close. The meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m.