Firefighters, board members and several taxpayers of the Central Coventry Fire District along with several town officials including Town Manager Tom Hoover, Town Council President Gary Cote, Police Chief Bryan Volpe and Asst. Town Solicitor Arthur Reed gathered at the Washington County Courthouse in Wakefield at 2 p.m. on Wednesday.
The occasion was a much-anticipated hearing regarding the fire district's recent special mastership filing that occurred last Tuesday. Following an annual meeting on Oct. 1 where the passage of the 2012-2013 budget was tabled until Dec. 3, Interim Chief Andrew Baynes and then Board of Directors Vice-President Joseph Bonn announced at a press conference that the district was out of funds needed to pay staff salaries and operating costs. Due to its inability to send out tax bills to residents, the district's stream of revenue was forced to a halt, leading to the decision to file for receivership.
Wednesday's hearing was presided over by R.I. Superior Court Judge Brian P. Stern who began the proceedings by explaining to the gallery that the decision to hold a preliminary hearing just two days after attorney Richard Land was appointed as the district's Special Master was made because it is before anything else, a public safety issue.
"First let me say that it would be extremely difficult to close the doors of this department without a plan in place," said Judge Stern. "Because the district has outlined that they to not have the funds to continue operations and pay the firefighters who have been working without pay for 12 days and are owed more than $150,000, we are moving along quickly."
He outlined the specific aspects of the district's plight that he intended to address during the hearing, which included ensuring that the court understood the district's requests, allowing an opportunity for involved parties to be heard, obtaining a preliminary understanding of public safety issues that have arisen and allowing the court to authorize any emergency steps that need to be taken.
Special Master Richard Land explained that he has quickly begun to familiarize himself with the situation and the concerns of members of the district, and although it is still a bit soon to grasp the full scope of the situation, it is widely understood that his initial goals are to pay the firefighters and continue to provide fire and emergency services to residents.
After discussing the short-term contingency plan that is in place regarding automatic aid from the three additional Coventry fire districts and neighboring communities, Judge Stern expressed his concern that a short-term plan would not be acceptable for the safety of the community in the near future.
"The court is concerned from a public safety point of view that we at least need to be prepared in the case that the Central Coventry Fire District will no longer be providing coverage," he said. "We hope that doesn't happen but we need to be prepared for it."
Chief Volpe and Council President Cote both spoke of their intent to provide as much assistance from a town level as possible - an action that will include allowing the fire district to use the town's fuel supply to keep its vehicles on the road and responding to emergencies. The specifics of this decision will be confirmed at a future court hearing, but the town's reimbursement when the district gets back on its feet will be required through the special mastership process.
"Public safety is what all of us here are about today," said Volpe. "I just want to thank my brothers in the fire department for volunteering like they have been. That is unheard of in this day and age and I applaud them for it."
"The job that these men and women do is irreplaceable and indispensable to the Town of Coventry," said Cote. "We will do whatever we can to help them come out a stronger and better department than when they started and I know they are capable of that."
Judge Stern went on to suggest that Land implement the formation of a public safety committee, which should consist of Land himself, Interim Chief Baynes, Police Chief Volpe, a representative from the Town Council or the Town Manager, chiefs from the town's additional fire districts, district board members and a representative from the firefighters' union. He also plans to request the short-term technical assistance from the RI State Fire Marshal, RI Department of Health director, a representative from the RI Emergency Management department and possibly representatives from the state departments of revenue and administration.
Judge Stern and Land discussed and both agreed that the only way for the district to begin moving forward in a positive direction is to enable the district to send tax bills out to its residents in order to begin bringing revenue back in.
Judge Stern agreed that because of the emergency nature of the proceedings, the court would exert its equitable powers to allow Land to mail voluntary tax invoices to residents in amounts equal to the $5.2 million tax levy from the previous year's bills. The invoices will be rendered to the taxpayers "in anticipation of an approved budget and approved tax levy" in December and may be later supplemented with an additional bill reflecting any changes that will be voted into effect by the residents. A letter explaining the court's decision and how it will effect the current situation will accompany the tax bills.
"It we are able to send these out to the taxpayers, there's a general belief that people will understand that the services need to be delivered to the community," said Land. "I hope that this will allow the residents to step up to the plate and essentially afford us time to work on the longer-term financial issues with the district so when we come back to court or hold the Dec. 3 tax meeting, we will have a real plan to present."
"The first tax dollars that come in, the court has no problem saying that they will go towards salaries owed and ongoing salaries," stated Judge Stern.
Stern will also require that a financial plan be put into place by Land and his soon-to-be-formed committee that everyone can understand and have confidence in, as well as a five-year plan that explains how the district will deal with the debts that it has incurred. Public meetings that are widely advertised to residents are another requirement of the court.
"I want this to be a very transparent process," said Judge Stern. "This is a public entity and through the committees, meetings and public filings, everybody can be aware in terms of where we stand."
The hearing concluded with a report from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island legal counsel Russell Marsella, confirming the reinstatement of CCFD employees' health insurance coverage that had been terminated pre-special mastership, effective immediately and retroactive from Oct. 12. Marsella did state that it may take up to 24 hours for employees to be added back into the system, but that they are covered immediately.
"I believe we covered the most significant points and I thank the court for the progress that was made today," said Land. "It will give the firefighters some comfort and will allow us to address some of the emergency contingency plans. I hope to have the committee formed very quickly and have short and long term plans in place before we lose any more weeks."
Stay with Coventry Patch for more CCFD updates as they become available.