The pending bankruptcy of the Central Coventry, R.I., Fire District has magnified debate about duplication and accountability within such jurisdictions.
Late last week, state Director of Administration Steven Hartford, after receiving approval from Gov. Lincoln Chafee, hired former state Supreme Court Justice Robert Flanders as receiver for the independent district. Flanders expects to file the necessary bankruptcy papers in about two weeks.
Hartford, a former Westerly town manager, had served as the district's receiver before his elevation to administration director in June. A receiver, unlike the five-member budget commission that has overseen some ailing municipalities in Rhode Island, can take a fire district into Chapter 9; the state legislature this year amended the receivership law to include fire districts.
Coventry, 18 miles southwest of capital city Providence, has four independent fire districts, none townwide.
Last year, the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council reported that the state has 44 such districts spread across 15 of the state's 39 municipalities.
"Although the districts are granted authority similar to municipal governments -particularly in the case of taxation powers of some fire districts - they do not appear to be required to adhere to the same restrictions or reporting requirements as local governments," said RIPEC. "This raises questions of accountability and transparency, and, to a certain extent, equity."
East Greenwich merged its fire district into the town last year, dissolving an entity that dated to the John Adams presidency.
A state court special master, Richard Land, had been supervising the Central Coventry district since October 2012. Land has also served as court-appointed receiver for defunct video-game company 38 Studios. Superior Court Judge Brian Stern, who had ordered the district liquidated in May, turned its jurisdiction over to Hartford.
Chafee, who did not seek re-election, has discussed the district with incoming governor Gina Raimondo.
"There's got to be changes. That's why we're going to Chapter 9, and we couldn't reach an agreement with the union to fit into the budget approved by the people," Chafee told television station WPRI.
Flanders, a partner at Providence firm Hinckley, Allen & Snyder LLP, is best known as the receiver during the Chapter 9 filing of Central Falls. The 19,000-population city, which reported an $80 million unfunded pension liability in its August 2011 filing, reduced police and fire retiree benefits by as much as 55% before exiting bankruptcy 13 months later.
According to Hartford, the fire district, which is $3 million in debt, owes money to Blue Cross & Blue Shield, the state municipal retirement fund, National Grid, the local water authority, and a raft of smaller creditors.
Hartford and union president David Gorman agreed that sticking points included staffing levels at firehouses and responding fire trucks, which are stipulated by contract.
Critics maintain that the abundance of little fire districts amounts to an anachronism in Rhode Island, the nation's smallest state.