LETTER TO ALLOTSEGO.COM EDITOR
Editor’s Note: Here is a Letter to the Editor of www.AllOTSEGO.com from Carol Malz, who was elected to the Town of Oneonta Fire District #1 board of commissioners on Dec. 8. Because of the time-sensitivity of negotiations between the commissioners and the City of Oneonta on fire protection, send any letters to firstname.lastname@example.org and they will be posted on this site.
To the Editor of AllOTSEGO.com:
I was recently elected as one of five fire commissioners for the Town of Oneonta Fire District #1. Thank you to everyone who wrote my name in; I am honored by your apparently good opinion of me. Unfortunately, I may not be able to serve after Dec. 29, 2015, as my new employment may prohibit holding elective office. Nevertheless, I have had many questions about the Fire District and the current situation, and have been asked many questions which I had not been able to answer.
Like me, you may have just thought we were covered by the City of Oneonta Fire Department and never even knew we had a district with a board of commissioners. So, I have sought answers and here is what I have learned. I welcome corrections of any errors.
The hamlet of West Oneonta and area to the west of Route 205, including the Plains, is covered by the West Oneonta Fire Department, which is served by volunteers. The rest of the Town of Oneonta is covered by the Town of Oneonta Fire District #1. All of the Town of Oneonta, however, is covered by ambulance services with the City of Oneonta Fire Department.
The Fire District is an entity that answers to its constituents, as the law provides for the commissioners to be elected into office. The Town Board has no control over the commissioners and their decisions. However, the Fire District’s negotiations and contracts with the City affect the Town-City ambulance contracts, which the Town Board negotiates.
The most urgent question, of course, is what is going to happen on Jan. 1, 2016. That is a question I am unable to answer. The most I have been told by another commissioner is that it is “under control.”
Prior to this recent election, the last election for fire commissioners was held in 2008. Fred Volpe was an elected commissioner. After 2008, the commissioners chose to just appoint each other, rather than hold elections, contrary to law.
The Fire District had a contract with the City for fire protection in 2010-14, at a cost to the Fire District of approximately $900,000 per year. The contract based the Fire District’s share of costs on a mutually agreeable formula. Briefly, that formula took into consideration the assessed values of properties, equalized, and actual net costs of the Oneonta City Fire Department. For 2010, the values were those established as of July 1, 2009, and the net costs were those for the 2008 fiscal year.
By law, the most a contract can extend for is five years. A fire district’s budget is subject to the 2 percent (2 percent) tax cap. To override the cap, sixty percent (60 percent) of the total voting power of the governing body must approve, in this case, three out of five commissioners. Unlike with school districts exceeding the 2 percent tax cap, there is no requirement for a public vote. The most constituents receive is a public hearing when the commissioners vote.
The Town of Oneonta Fire District #1 was audited by the state Comptroller’s Office in 2013. The Comptroller issued his report on Jan. 31, 2014, (Report Number: 2013M-243; the report is available online). Significantly, and I cannot stress this enough, the Comptroller did not find any mismanagement of funds. Although he did find some issues, no one was stealing funds or anything like that.
Important to this discussion, though, is his finding that “the current contract the District has with the City for fire protection requires the use of documents that are not available to District officials at the time of billing to verify the contract amount. Lack of proper documentation could lead to inappropriate billing or the inability to verify the amounts billed. We verbally discussed other minor deficiencies with District officials during the conduct of our fieldwork.” I assume this has brought about some of the Commissioners’ demands.
Negotiations for the 2015 contract took place in 2014, and for that contract, the Fire District paid approximately $946,000.00. Apparently in reaction to the last-minute negotiations involved in that contract, the contract provided that “the parties agree to schedule meetings during the first quarter for 2015 to discuss the goal of a long term contract beginning in 2016.”
The City claims that the commissioners did not respond to its requests for negotiations in early 2015, nor over the summer. What the commissioners did not tell the City, according to City officials, is that they were unsure that they had authority to negotiate. That lack of authority came from the commissioners’ failure to hold elections. Again, they had simply appointed each other.
The really puzzling part of this story, at least to me, is what the commissioners did in response to their lack of authority. Instead of promptly holding a public vote so that they could be elected commissioners and negotiate with the City, they asked Senator Seward for help. As found on http://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/bills/2015/S4541, Senator Seward introduced a bill on March 26, 2015 as follows:
AN ACT to legalize, validate, ratify and confirm certain actions of the
Oneonta Fire District relating to its operation
THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, REPRESENTED IN SENATE AND ASSEMBLY,
DO ENACT AS FOLLOWS:
1 Section 1. All the acts done and proceedings heretofore and hereafter
2 had and taken or caused to be had and taken, by the Oneonta Fire
3 District within the Town of Oneonta and by all officers, employees or
4 agents of such district beginning in the year 2010 and ending upon the
5 legal appointment or election of the commissioners of such district in
6 2015, where such acts and proceedings are consistent with article 11 of
7 the town law or any other relevant provision of law are hereby legal-
8 ized, validated, ratified and confirmed, notwithstanding any failure or
9 defect of the district to comply with section 175 of the town law during
10 such period.
11 S 2. This act shall take effect immediately.
This bill passed the Assembly and Senate in June 2015, and was signed by the Governor in November 2015. Note that this law just excuses the commissioners from not having held elections. It does not excuse them if they did not otherwise follow the laws. Maybe they were worried about Public Officers Law § 36.
This morning (Tuesday, Dec. 15), I met with Meg Hungerford to get further information on the City Fire Department’s budget and an understanding of the City’s position. Donald Lamanna, another recently elected commissioner, joined us, as did Mayor Herzig.
As stated at that Meeting, the Common Council opened the 2016 negotiations with a request of $1.2 million. There has not been any other offer. In order for a different offer to be made, negotiations have to take place. The Common Council can call a special meeting before the end of the year in order to vote on a contract.
Meg Hungerford provided a calculation to Commissioner Peachin based on the historic formula with two additional factors, at the Commissioner’s request, and that amounted to $1,030,000.00. Notably, that was a calculation, not an offer. The $1.2 million offer took into consideration all costs and allocated one-third to the Fire District, but did not include monies collected for ambulance services from the users and/or their insurers. Health insurance costs are up approximately 10 percent. Pension costs are up. The firemen’s union contract expires at the end of this year, so there is an expectation of wages also going up.
A big divide is over administration costs. The City has been providing billing and collecting services for ambulance use, and that was never before added into the costs that the Fire District would pay its share of. Administration costs are $272,703.00 (and all costs are those incurred in 2014). The Fire District does get the benefit of payments collected, so why not pay a share of the collection costs?
From $946,000.00 to $1.2 million is an approximately 25 percent increase. From $946,000.00 to $1,030,000.00 is an approximately 9 percent increase. A 9 percent increase would amount to an additional 15 cents tax per $1,000 value in the Fire District. If you own a home worth $100,000, you would pay an additional $15.00 for the Fire District in 2016.
As noted earlier, historically, the formula used real property values to allocate the amount of costs charged to each district. Neither side is content with the formula. This is not surprising from the City’s side, as it had continually included the values of tax exempt properties in its total.
The City proposed the Town Fire District’s share to be one-third based on usage. In November 2015, the City used 62 percent, the Fire District 32 percent, and other districts 6 percent of the City Fire Department’s services. For the year through November 2015, the figures are 60 percent, 33 percent, and 7 percent, respectively. The Commissioners have made arguments that other factors should be considered, such as population. In that argument, the Commissioners allocate the student population to the City, but apparently do not include any population to the Town for hotel occupancy or baseball camps. Acreage, mileage, use of water trucks due to lack of fire hydrants, types of industry, commercial square footage s any factors can be used, as long as there is agreement. This is, after all, a contract.
As Meg Hungerford pointed out, there are some things that the City Fire Department has purchased because it is a safety issue for the Town Fire District, not the City, such as the brush truck in case of brush fires.
I have not heard anyone in the Town express dissatisfaction with the City Fire Department. All I have heard from fellow district residents is that they want a contract signed NOW.
Town of Oneonta Fire District #1