Rhode Island's consolidation blues

Feb 22, 2013

The high cost of local government in Rhode Island has forever been an issue. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay wonders why – even in a recession- our little state can’t make progress on consolidating municipal services.

RI State Capitol
Credit RIPR file

It seemed like a smart and easy way for both Warwick and East Greenwich to save taxpayer money. In 2011, at the depth of the recession, leaders of the two communities got together to see if they could merge fire dispatch services in a way that would incorporate new technologies and save money.

Two years later, the plan has imploded, leaving a sour taste in the mouth of   Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian and East Greenwich officials. Consolidating this one simple service proved much more difficult either side imagined.

Avedisian acknowledges that mistakes were made, including the failure to hire an outside consultant to shepherd the process. But money and turf battles between the communities also contributed to problem. WJAR investigative reporter Jim Taricani broke this story and his report pointed to opposition from members of the union representing Warwick firefighters. Avedisian disputes this and says a larger factor was the hiring of a new Warwick fire chief  who didn’t think the plan would save enough money to justify the headaches.

It’s not like they haven’t been working together already. Warwick currently pays East Greenwich about $350,000 annually to cover rescue runs in the Potowomut neighborhood of  Warwick. Now that there’s bad blood, Avedisian thinks that he may be able to convert a vacant school in the neighborhood into a fire house and harvest the savings.

If  two communities with reputations for well-run and scandal-free municipal government can’t get together to consolidate something as simple as dispatching fire and rescue vehicles, what hope is there for the rest of the state?

Rhode Island is smallest state in the country, really a city-state. Yet we are drowning in government and quasi-government agencies. Our cozy state has 155 separate pension systems, 77 fire departments, 36 school superintendants, more than 100 water systems and six local tourism and scores of other governmental relics of   a era when rotary  telephones came in one color, black, and we drove to work in Studebakers.

This means that our state is well-prepared for the 19th Century, but not so well for the 21st.

Rhode Island was born in rebellion from the imperial British crown. Colonists didn’t trust central authorities so they created a government that was close to the people, with a powerful legislature and a weak governorship. This led to a legacy of democratic localism, which embraced local control and strong citizen involvement in government.

This legacy meant that Rhode Islanders developed a mistrust of central government that harkens back o the 18th Century, when our state voted against signing on to the new federal Constitution that replaced the Articles of Confederation.

There were good reasons a century ago for the profusion of fire companies. The dozy town of Burrillville that hugs the Connecticut and Massachusetts borders has five fire departments, one for each of the old textile mill villages that once fueled the town’s economy.

These volunteer fire companies were established at a time when the siren had to be heard to summon firefighters. The system had the virtue of promoting local responsibility as well as being informal taverns where a volunteer firefighter could get a beer on a Sunday afternoon during the days when Blue Laws barred Sabbath alcohol sales.

Now this localism has created a quilt-work of expensive agencies. The Scituate Reservoir provides more than 60 percent of the state’s drinking water needs, but some water agencies take water from Scituate and resell it at a profit to other communities. Why is there a Providence Water Supply Board and   Kent County Water Authority both piping water from the same reservoir? And a Narragansett Bay Commission to deal with treating the reservoir’s outflow into the sewer system?

And all the pension systems, too many of which are seriously underfunded? The plethora of pension plans had long vested too much power and scant accountability in the hands of politicians who trade generous benefits to public workers for support on Election Day.

If you think the business community has the answers, well, ask them why there are 34 chambers of commerce in a state that isn’t big enough to be a county anywhere west of the Hudson River?

There is a lot of talk at the State House about consolidating local services. This topic has provided fodder for endless studies and full-employment for government policy wonks.

But the political hurdles seem insurmountable. Former Republican state representative Nick Gorham of Coventry called for the merger of municipal services in rural western Rhode Island. His reward was being voted out of office.

Ah, Rhode Island, where the past shadows the state’s economic future.

Scott MacKay's commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40 and on All Things Considered on Monday at 5:50. You can also follow his political analysis and commentary at the `On Politics' blog at RIPR.org