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City seeks payment for cost of fighting mill fire

June 15, 2011

WOONSOCKET – The city wants to recoup some of the costs it incurred for extinguishing the Alice Mill fire last week from the company that insures the mammoth mill site.
The known costs thus far include $38,660 in overtime, most for the Woonsocket Fire Department, but nearly $7,000 for police, said Mayor Leo T. Fontaine.
A full inventory of expenses, including possible overtime logged by workers in the water department, should be finished within a couple of days.
“Right now we're going to tally all the costs and we'll be in touch with the owner's insurance company to seek some amount of compensation,” Fontaine said.
In addition to overtime, Fontaine said he has been informed by Fire Chief Gary Lataille that the insurance industry uses a standard reimbursement formula based on the quantity and type of firefighting vehicles dispatched to major fires. Lataille couldn't be reached for comment.
So far as Fontaine knows, the city has never tried to bill an insurance company for municipal costs incurred as a result of a large structure fire before, and he's not sure the effort will bear any fruit. But Fontaine said the city is in such dire financial condition it needs to seek help covering the expense of the fire by any means possible.
Fontaine said the insurance move does not mean the city is taking an adversarial stance against the owner of the Fairmount Street mill site, Steven G. Triedman.
“We're not trying to complicate things for him – we just want to explore every possible avenue of recouping expenses associated with the fire, if at all possible,” said Fontaine.
Reached by phone, Triedman suggested the effort was unfair. He was also skeptical that it would be successful.
“What about the Seville mill fire?” he said. “How much did they get from insurance to pay for that?”
Triedman said he was “reasonably certain” his insurance company would pay nothing to offset the city's costs for putting out the fire.
“I'm sure they're going to argue that's what taxes are for,” he said.
Triedman said he's still not sure how much the company is going to cover for property losses stemming from the fire.
Triedman, who's under orders from the city to demolish the charred ruins of the collapsed mill for safety reasons, said the insurance policy doesn't cover demolition costs.
He said the insurance company had hired adjusters from several different subcontractor firms to evaluate the site since the fire destroyed most of the sprawling, 122-year-old mill complex on June 7. He said he expects more adjusters at the site in the weeks ahead before the claims process is settled.
Built in 1889, the Alice Mill was the home of the original Woonsocket Rubber Company, which later evolved into the U.S. Rubber Co. and Uniroyal. Through the 1970s, everything from rubber military rafts to “Keds” brand sneakers were manufactured at the facility – a rambling, red-brick complex of 14 buildings spread across seven acres overlooking the Blackstone River.
The number of firefighters who responded to the raging inferno at the complex has been estimated to be between 100 and 150. They came from all over Rhode Island and nearby Massachusetts to extinguish the fire, which destroyed all but two freestanding office buildings on the site.
After pouring water on the smoldering ruins for more than three days, Woonsocket firefighters finally abandoned the site on Saturday.
Triedman, who purchased the building from Portola Tech International for a reported $301,000 last fall, intended to launch the American Wood Pellet Company in the building. But those plans were waylaid by the accidental fire, caused by residual heat from an acetylene torch workers inside the building had been using to cut metal pipes for salvage, investigators say.
Triedman has vowed to rebuild on the premises, and Fontaine yesterday reaffirmed the city's commitment to do everything possible to assist him. Despite the daunting challenges Triedman faces, Fontaine said the mill owner has also expressed a willingness to help the city in any way he can to cope with the economic burden of the fire.
“He's willing to work with us if he has any ability to do so,” said the mayor. “At the same time, we want to do everything we can to help him rebuild.”
Fontaine said he's still holding out hope that the state will pitch in to help the city cover overtime costs associated with the fire – a possibility suggested by Gov. Lincoln Chafee during a tour of the site last week.
As for Seville Dyeing, which burned down in a still-unsolved arson fire in February, Fontaine said the company was not covered by any insurance.
It's unknown whether there's any precedent for the type of insurance claim Fontaine intends to press – Richard Susi, the executive director of the Rhode Island Fire Chiefs Association, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
But the mayor said the city already bills insurance companies for partial reimbursements of the cost of dispatching public safety equipment under various conditions. Third-party insurers are routinely billed for rescue runs, the mayor said. Though it's not so commonly known, insurance companies also provide reimbursements for dispatching other firefighting apparatus to vehicular accidents.

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