LETTER TO ALLOTSEGO.COM EDITOR
Editor’s Note: This letter from the Oneonta Town Board arrived too late for this week’s editions of Hometown Oneonta and The Freeman’s Journal. Due to its timely nature, we are publishing it as the first Letter to the Editor of our website.
To the Editor of AllOTSEGO.com:
The Town of Oneonta is protected by two fire districts. West Oneonta protects the town basically west of State Route 205 and primarily the hamlet of West Oneonta, including the Plains at Parish Homestead. The rest of the town is protected by the Oneonta Fire District. Both of the districts elect commissioners and determine a budget that is presented to the town where we levy a separate tax on the residents of the district that you live in. The Town Board has no say in the elections or the budget prepared by the commissioners.
The Town of Oneonta Fire District has for more than 30 years contracted for both fire and ambulance protection with the City of Oneonta. The commissioners negotiate a formula which needs to be reviewed periodically. The Town Board has a contract for ambulance coverage that allows the City of Oneonta to bill town residents who use the ambulance and to help offset the “uncollectable” ambulance charges.
Approximately 15 years ago there was an effort to separate the services. At that time, the chairman of the commissioners was informed by an attorney from the state Comptroller’s Office that the services were not separable in a department that provided both services. Currently, there is a difference of opinion regarding that determination.
The Town Board continues to monitor this situation. We have been in contact with the commissioners and have urged them to meet with the mayor and city manager to work things through. We were faced with a very similar situation last year and we feel that the residents of the town generally expect the services we have had in the past to continue. Repeated efforts on our part to encourage a meeting between the parties apparently have not been sufficient to bring the two sides together.
For the last 10-12 years a formula has been used to determine the town share of the cost of the department The formula looks at the cost of operating the department, minus revenues, and then apportioned based on assessed valuation. The value of the service is measurable. Law allows for contracts to run for no more than five years, as periodic review is necessary.
Issues that need to be negotiated include:
- At approximately $1 million for a contract, shouldn’t town residents have a voice in the operations of the department?
- Should additional administrative costs be added to the “formula”?
- Does the city fire department have appropriate equipment to fight fires in the town where fire hydrants are few and far between?
- What items can be added to the contract that would enhance coverage for town residents?
- Should fire and ambulance be separated?
- If so, how would the value of each contract be determined?
All of these issues need to be discussed in openly with appropriate public input.
Generally, residents of the district assume they will have the same coverage and services they have had for the last 35 years: a full-time paid fire department that provides ambulance services.
The commissioners have pointed out that Oneonta is the only town in Otsego County that has a fire tax that is higher than its Town Tax. True, but it is also the only town that has a full-time paid department protecting it.
If the commissioners agreed to a contract of $1,030,721 (one number that is out there) Oneonta Fire District taxes would go up by 15 cents per thousand of assessed valuation. In this case, each taxpayer must assess the cost of the service, compared to the value to determine if that cost is acceptable. We still hope that there is middle ground.
Most importantly, all of these issues need to be negotiated in public, with full knowledge of the residents of the town. The commissioners have stated “that they have everything well in hand.” With two weeks left in the year what does that mean?
If they have a plan to provide coverage that is significantly different from what residents expect and have received in the past, why have they not made that plan available to the public? Decisions of public safety should not be made without transparency and accountability to the general public.
The fact that the commissioners have not informed the Town Board or the town residents is deeply disturbing. I hope they will perform their duties openly and responsibly in the future.
Oneonta Town Supervisor
PATRICIA RIDDELL KENT
Oneonta Town Board