BY MEAGHAN WIMS
Journal Staff Writer
WEST GREENWICH: Frustrated with months of controversial service from the Lake Mishnock Fire Company at the Amgen Inc. construction site, an impassioned Town Council this week recommended that Amgen drop Mishnock and instead sign a contract with the Hopkins Hill Fire District, in neighboring Coventry.
In a resolution passed at its meeting Wednesday night -- after an hour of sometimes heated debate -- the council declared that it's in the interests of "public health, safety and welfare" to have the full-time Hopkins Hill department handle Amgen's fire and rescue needs, instead of the volunteer Mishnock company.
In recent months town officials have been publicly frustrated over the independent fire company's services to Amgen and over what they've called a lack of financial accountability.
"We've tried to patch this up, put Band-Aids on it," Town Manager Kevin A. Breene said at the meeting. "Quite frankly, it's rather embarrassing to be in this situation."
"It's about management, attitude and greed," Town Council President Thaylen H. Waltonen said. "It's like the Keystone Kops."
West Greenwich's Amgen, the world's largest biotechnology company, had complained to the town more that once about alleged problems that Mishnock officals had caused at the site of the company's new manufacturing plant.
Mishnock had been handling permitting, site-plan reviews and other fire services at the location. The state fire marshal's office has been carrying out those duties since Mishnock's removal a couple of months ago.
For example, in letters read aloud by the council at the June Financial Town Meeting, the union representing construction employees at the site said that Mishnock Chief William A. Shaw, "is presenting our company and our workers with challenging circumstances that are creating an extremely stressful situation" because of "constant arrogance and disrespect."
Another letter, from contractor ADP Marshall Inc., said the company asked the Mishnock officials not to return to the site because, among other things, they interfered with construction, didn't follow the chain of command and dampened worker morale.
Amgen, located off Hopkins Hill Road near the West Greenwich-Coventry border, has told the town that it would rather receive fire services from the Hopkins Hill Fire District.
"There's been friction back and forth," Breene said. "Even though Amgen is paying all these taxes to West Greenwich, [they're saying] we wish to have someone else provide fire services. That leaves us in a quandary.
"This isn't Mayberry anymore. We're a small town, with a very small population, with some very big things happening," he said. "I think it's a ridiculous situation."
Jeffrey S. Brenner, a lawyer for Amgen, said at the meeting, "We're sympathetic to Lake Mishnock. We made our needs known to the town. We defer to the town to exercise its best judgment in this matter."
Brenner said there have been negotiations with Hopkins Hill, but "nothing's set in stone at this point."
Hopkins Hill Fire Chief Frank M. Brown Jr. said yesterday, "We have no problems with Lake Mishnock. We see this solely as a business decision."
While the West Greenwich companies are supported by annual town appropriations, Coventry's seven independent fire districts are supported by district taxpayers. Brown said contracting with Amgen would be in Hopkins Hill's best interest because the revenues could save district taxpayers money and could be used to fund more staff and equipment.
Hopkins Hill currently has four full-time personnel and 32 volunteers, Brown said.
"We have stayed away from the politics. We're willing to step up to the plate to better serve the people in our district," Brown said.
But at Wednesday's meeting, Mishnock officials argued that they had better equipment than Hopkins Hill, that the council is wrongly catering to Amgen and that fire-service revenues should stay in town.
"We have a situation where someone with the money can [shop around] for a fire department," said J. Curtis Varone, a lawyer for Mishnock. "It's a horrendous precedent to set."
"If Amgen has money to give, it should give it to the West Greenwich departments," he said.
Amgen is currently paying about $1 million in property taxes to West Greenwich, Breene said.
"It's embarrassing as hell to have $1 million in taxes and have Amgen say, 'We don't want your fire services,' " Breene said.
"I see a taxpayer in this town trying to grow and not getting the services they need," Waltonen retorted.
Varone argued that Hopkins Hill is not a full-time department and is "no better able to respond" than Mishnock to an emergency.
"Well, they're very well managed," Waltonen responded.
"You're going to have less control with Hopkins Hill," Varone told the council. "If you want control, these are the guys you can control."
"This entity [Mishnock] is in this town," Waltonen said in a raised voice. "Apparently, that's something people don't get."
"This is a novel situation..." Varone began, saying that there was no case law to refer to in handling the dispute.
"We're not talking legality, we're talking morality," said Robert H. Meehan, a former member of Mishnock, referring to the current management of the fire company."There are people turning in their graves about what's going on."
The council, at its annual financial meeting, had cut $43,000 from Mishnock's operating budget, saying it wanted to equalize support among the town's two other fire companies -- Hianloland and West Greenwich Fire Co. No. 1 -- because Mishnock receives thousands of dollars from Amgen.
But the council said it's still unclear how much Mishnock receives from Amgen, what it spends the money for and who is paying five full-time firefighters on what had been an all-volunteer force. The company has said that it amended its charter in February to no longer be strictly-volunteer.
The council, however, still considers Mishnock a volunteer force and had asked the company to provide budget information. But members were not satisfied with a 7-page packet Mishnock provided at the start of Wednesday's meeting. The documents include information about the company's hiring practices, EMT guidelines and employee and salary list.
According to the documents, Mishnock paid out a total of $187,537 in salaries last year compared with $147,910 to date this year.
Under a town ordinance, Mishnock is to retain 30 percent of any revenues from fire-permit fees, and to distribute 15 percent each to the two other companies and 40 percent to the town, which would in turn appropriate the money to fire services.
But Breene said, "We don't have anything to show for it. We don't see a new fire truck, we see a list of salaries."
"Lake Mishnock has not been handling that money the way they should have," Meehan said.
"We're willing to open our books," Varone replied.
"Too little, too late as far as I'm concerned," Meehan said.
Brown, Hopkins Hill's chief, said the Coventry district has hired an attorney and is still in negotiations with Amgen regarding a contract. But he said Amgen has cut a $100,000 temporary purchasing order to Hopkins Hill for fire and rescue services. The order is effective for six months, although it has not yet been activated, Brown said.
Shaw, who was elected Mishnock's chief soon after the West Greenwich Financial Town Meeting -- replacing Claude N. "Bud" Tyler III -- said that he was not on-site at Amgen during the disputes because of heart trouble. Town officials, however, said Shaw's name was brought up more than once when complaints were made.
Shaw said he wants to have a meeting with Amgen and town officials "so I can get my name cleared."
"All I'm worried about is clearing my name," Shaw said. "If there's no credibility between you and me, the new fire chief, how can we move ahead?"
My only input, without knowing any other details, is that the Council shows a remarkable lack of faith in Lake Mishnock (which, it should be noted, is not the only fire department in E.G.). If the department isn't good enough for a major local employer, can the Council allow the department to continue serving their residents?
I have heard an interesting story from a Hopkins Hill firefighter who responded automatic mutual aid to an AFA from Amgen, and when he arrived (before Mishnock) he discovered an unknown puddle on the floor of a room full of chemical vats while being led towards the source of the alarm by an employee. Being a Hazmat Tech, he stopped dead in his tracks and asked the employee what it was, and got a shrug in reply. My friend decides that no way in H@LL is his crew entering that room.
The first-due company from Mishnock arrives, enters the room, and walks THROUGH the puddle towards the origination of the alarm.
Turned out to be a broken steam pipe that tripped the sensors, and then the steam condensed into the puddle seen on the floor. But still.
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07-25-2003, 01:38 PM #1
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Town Council Urges Local Company to Switch Fire Departments
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07-26-2003, 03:54 PM #2
07-26-2003, 10:59 PM #3
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