Scott MacKay Commentary: Time To Consolidate R.I.'s Bloated Government Agencies

Jun 19, 2015

The high cost of government in Rhode Island is once again in the forefront, as voters in Coventry dissolve the Coventry Fire District. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay asks if this can be a spur for consolidation in our tiny state.

Problems with the Coventry Fire District have raised questions about consolidating.
Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

In a referendum  Coventry voters resoundingly refused to give any more of their property taxes to the stanch the river of red ink drowning the Coventry Fire District. They  turned thumbs down on the fire district even though it provides fire and emergency services to the most densely populated part of the community..

These fed up voters are the latest example  of a state with Balkanized public services and too many overlapping government agencies that seem straight from the Department of Redundancy department.

Rhode Island is the smallest state, not large enough to be a county anywhere west of New Haven. Yet our watery sliver of New England has 77 fire departments, 155 separate pension systems and more than 100 water systems.

This system once made sense. New England’s traditional localism was once the boast of a region that won praise from no less than Alexis de Tocqueville  as  far back as the 19th Century. Rhode Island was hatched in rebellion from the British Crown. Colonists didn’t tolerate central control, so they established a government that was close to the people, with a powerful legislature and a weak governor.

So they set up government services that boosted citizen involvement and a mistrust of big government. This worked well in a rural society based on the rhythms of the seasons and agriculture. And it worked when the American Industrial Revolution began in the 1790s with textile factories in the Blackstone Valley.

The mill villages were close-knit communities where workers walked from home to work. The town of Burrillville has five fire departments, a legacy of the days when each mill village needed its own firefighters. These volunteer departments summoned firefighters who lived close enough to a fire station to hear a siren when a fire broke out.

We are no longer, of course, a bucket brigade society. Firefighting is now a skilled profession that requires special training and experience. It is a unique job; long periods of tedium interrupted by frenzied moments when people’s lives are in their hands. Our society has a few such professions, like piloting an airliner or watching over surgeries as an anesthesiologist.

Firefighters deserve our respect. They  ought to be paid well and given decent benefits. Yet, in the 21st Century, we don’t need as many of them as we once did. Which brings up our state’s crying need to run public services more efficiently, taking advantage of our connected, high-tech world to forge good services the taxpayer can afford.

Our history of local control has bred a maze of agencies that carry bloated costs. Why are there four fire stations on the East Side of Providence, where fires are scarcer than Mitt Romney bumper stickers on Thayer Street during the last presidential campaign?

Fire services mirror other government services in our city-state. Our plethora of pension funds has created quilt of seriously underfunded retirement systems that threaten the solvency of too many of our communities.

Even our drinking water agencies are inefficient. The Scituate Reservoir provides more than 60 percent of the state’s drinking water needs, but some agencies take water from the Scituate and resell it for a profit to other communities. Why is there a Providence Water Supply Board and a Kent County Water Authority both slurping water from the same source? And a Narragansett Bay Commission to treat the reservoir’s outflow into the sewers.

Over the years there has been much hot air at the Statehouse about consolidating local services.  The topic has provided little more than employment for consultants and endless studies that never go anywhere.

It looks like the Smith Hill gang could care less about consolidation. Lt. Gov. Dan McKee has tried to begin a discussion on the issue. He even convinced Gov. Gina Raimondo to propose a $100,000 budget item to begin a serious study. But the General Assembly stripped this appropriation from the budget.

Outside the Coventry polling station last week, a citizens group gathered signatures for a petition to the town council requesting a town wide fire department. Their banner stated, `One Town. One Department. It’s time, it makes sense.’

It’s too bad that sentiment gets such short shrift at the Statehouse.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org