BURRILLVILLE — The Town Council has voted to ask the town's four independent fire districts to consider sitting down and discussing possible ways the departments can share services or equipment in an effort to reduce costs for district taxpayers.
While acknowledging the council has no authority over the four districts — which include Harrisville, Pascoag, Glendale and Oakland-Mapleville — the motion simply asks district committee officials, including the chiefs and ratepayers, to consider examining possible ways the districts can work together to determine if there are cost savings to be realized.
The council's motion, which was introduced by member Margaret "Peggy" Dudley, arose from an agenda item proposed at last week's meeting by Councilor David J. Place, who had requested the council consider funding a study to "assess the efficiency of our current emergency response services, specifically the fire and rescue."
Place said he has had discussions with some residents recently as well as during his election campaign a year ago who are questioning the efficiency of the districts.
"Most people I talked to have praised the response service, but there are some people who have questions about efficiency and the system itself," he said.
Place proposed the council determine the feasibility of conducting an independent study of the four fire districts similar to a study being conducted in North Providence. Place's proposal quickly drew the ire of Councilman Wallace F. Lees, a former town police chief and firefighter.
"Quite frankly, I feel bad that this is even on the agenda," Lees said. "Dave, I don't know where you're coming from. I've been in this town for a long time dealing with these fire departments for 48 years. I have not yet had one person come to me and say the police and fire departments are sluggish responding to a call. I was on the fire department for 20 years and can't say enough good things about the departments and their members."
Town Council President Nancy F. Binns also took issue with Place's proposal.
"I think you're comparing apples to oranges," she told Place. "The North Prov-idence study was to look at a municipal department. Here in Burrillville, we have four individual fire districts and the council does not have control over any of them. I'm not sure we can authorize a study because it's not under our purview."
Harrisville Fire Chief Mark St. Pierre also took exception with Place's proposal, saying for a town that is 51 square miles, Burrillville doesn't have too many fire districts.
"For the people who are complaining, why don't we see them at our monthly district meetings?" he said.
Place responded: "This is not just coming from me, but members of our constituency."
"Are they here tonight?" Lees interjected. "I really want to hear from them."
At that moment, resident Paul J. Choquette, of Waterfront Lane, went to the podium and identified himself as one of those residents.
"I have no complaints at all about fire service," he told the council. "I would just like the council to look into efficiencies regarding the budget process. Is it more efficient to have fire service under the control of the town then to have four separate districts? Do we need all the equipment that is being purchased? Would it be better for town residents financially?"
Councilman Stephen R. Rawson said the issue of duplication of fire services goes back 20 years, "but I believe strongly that the town should not get into the fire service business."
Rawson said while he would not support Place's recommendation to pursue a formal feasibility study, he did suggest that the districts themselves "of their own volition" should "take the issue to heart" and discuss it.
"I would beseech people to aggressively look at the possibility of combining districts with a thought toward efficiency, less duplication and better coverage of services," he said.
Dudley said Place's agenda item could have been worded better, adding that she believes it was not his intent to question the police or fire department's response time to calls, but rather, if there are ways the various districts can combine services or equipment that could be passed down as savings to ratepayers.
As an example, Dudley referenced the intermunicipal agreement signed this year between Burrillville, North Smithfield, Smithfield and Glocester to share equipment and personnel in an effort to help reduce costs.
The agreement, in the works since 2009, is the result of several meetings of the Northern Rhode Island Collaboration of Mayors and Town Administrators, which was formed three years ago to study ways neighboring communities can share resources in times of critical budget constraints. Last year, the four towns signed an intermunicipal memorandum of understanding, which set up a framework to allow the collaborative to begin putting together the intermunicipal agreement earlier this year.
"Maybe our four chiefs and can sit down and talk to at least see if the districts could share services," Dudley said.
When she made the motion to send a letter to the chiefs asking for exactly that, the motion was approved by herself, Place, Rawson and Councilor Kevin D. Heitke. Voting against the motion were Binns and Lees.
The council's seventh member, Edward J. Blanchard, abstained because he is a Pascoag firefighter.