RI island residents call for more volunteer fire department funding

The Town Council has already provisionally approved $170,540 for the Prudence Island Volunteer Fire Department in the fiscal 2020 budget, a 1.03% increase over last year

Laura Damon
Newport Daily News, R.I.

PORTSMOUTH, R.I. — Matthew Allen asked the Town Council to picture a child stung by bees when it considered an additional $80,330 allotment to the Prudence Island Volunteer Fire Department at a budget hearing Wednesday night.

Allen joined a crowd of Prudence Island residents who took a special ferry across the bay to be at Town Hall to plead for additional funds for the island's volunteer fire department. The Town Council has already provisionally approved $170,540 for the Prudence Island Volunteer Fire Department in the fiscal 2020 budget — a 1.03% increase over last year— but residents said more is needed to supplement the department's personnel and dated equipment.

(Photo/ Prudence Island Volunteer Fire Department)
(Photo/ Prudence Island Volunteer Fire Department)

Greg Gempp, a retired firefighter, said Prudence Island residents are paying "full town taxes without full town services."

The population on Prudence Island is seasonally variable. Between 100 and 150 people live there in the winter. The maximum summer population is approximately 800 people. Founded in 1942, the Prudence Island Fire Department is a nonprofit organization headed by Chief Donald Dragon Jr.

There are approximately 45 volunteer members on the department; most volunteer members serve seasonally and are on the island from May through October. During the remaining calendar year the number of volunteers drops to between 10 and 15. To guarantee a response to each call throughout the year the department pays an on-call stipend for one licensed emergency medical technician and one certified firefighter who serves as the officer-in-charge. The $80,330 would supplement their compensation and also the maintenance costs for the department's 10 vehicles, maintenance costs of the fire station building, the replacement of aging portable radios and volunteer training, according to the Prudence Island Volunteer Fire Department's funding proposal presented to the council in April.

The council voted 6-1 May 13 to provisionally approve $64,878,243 for both revenue and expenditures in the town's fiscal 2020 budget — a 2.57% increase over last year — with Councilor Keith Hamilton opposed. If given final approval at the council meeting June 24, the budget would result in a 3.6% increase in the property tax levy over last year.

The $100,960 increase in the town's budget from the previously approved $64,777,283 was driven largely by alterations in civic support finances encompassing establishments like Common Fence Point Community Hall.

The Prudence Island Volunteer Fire Department falls under civic support finances in the fiscal 2020 budget. At the May 13 meeting, Councilor Leonard Katzman proposed discussion of a $80,330 increase to what was budgeted for the Prudence Island Volunteer Fire Department, raising the total to $250,870, but no council members made a motion to do so. That meant the provisionally approved amount remained $170,540.

No votes were taken Wednesday since the meeting served as a public hearing. Councilor Keith Hamilton suggested the meeting be closed and re-opened so he could make a motion to move the provisionally approved $2,000 from Clean Ocean Access to the Prudence Island Volunteer Fire Department— a move he admitted would likely be voted down— but withdrew it later and postponed it for consideration at the council's June 24 meeting. Hamilton stressed that he won't support any solutions that will raise taxes, but he'll continue to think of ways to re-allocate funds to support the volunteer fire department.

Susan Allen said applications for grants to supplement the fire department in 2017 and 2018 were denied. According to Dragon, the volunteer fire department relies mostly on the town's annual appropriation to operate.

"We are a public safety organization, we should be treated as such," Gempp said.

Some Prudence Island residents argued that the Prudence Island Fire Department should be listed under "fire" in the fiscal 2020 budget rather than categorized under "civic support" to ensure its evaluated equally along with the Portsmouth Fire Department.

Hamilton noted the fire department is a volunteer agency, which explains why it's categorized under "civic support."

"I do hear you," President Kevin Aguiar told the Prudence Island residents who spoke at the meeting. "We will look for opportunities to close the gap."

Town Administrator Richard Rainer said all departments took cuts in their budgets. "Nobody's trying to jeopardize life," he said. "There's only so much money that we have."

Hamilton said the goal is to support a budget that benefits the safety, education and well-being of all Portsmouth residents. "We keep them all in mind," he said.

"We're fighting for the island," Gempp said. "We want our share."



©2019 Newport Daily News, R.I.


McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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