LETTER TO EDITOR
To the Editor:
It is now 2016 and the failure of the Town of Oneonta fire commissioners to execute a fire protection contract with the City for this year is a serious and concerning matter. The town and city governments continue to work together on a host of efforts, including economic development, communications, sewer and water and highway work.
Most of the town’s residents and businesses currently rely on the city for professional fire protection. At the same time, the city depends on the million-dollar contribution of town residents to employ and equip Oneonta firefighters and to keep city taxes more manageable. The collaborative efforts around fire protection and ambulance services are a prime example of how the town and city have worked together effectively for decades to promote the general welfare of Oneonta in a manner which best serves each jurisdictions’ taxpayers.
We know that, so long as the fire commissioners are doing their job, this collaboration works. But, for the second year in a row, the fire commissioners have not done their job and have instead engaged in a senseless game of chicken that puts at risk the safety of our residents and guests and endangers millions of dollars in property value.
In 2014, a contract was not negotiated by them until Dec. 30 and the town fire district agreed contractually that in 2015 it would begin multi-year negotiations with the city government in the first quarter of the year. Despite multiple attempts by the city to negotiate and repeated urging by the town board throughout the year, the commissioners avoided dialogue until December 2015 and even then rejected good-faith negotiation or substantive meetings and largely ignored phone and email contacts from the city and town.
This paper has claimed that the “situation is nobody’s fault and everybody’s fault,” but the facts tell a different story. While the town and city are sympathetic to commissioners’ claims of personal issues throughout the year, these did not relieve them of their duties. They had an entire year to do one job: negotiate an acceptable number with the city by year’s end. If the Commissioners were unable to do their one job, they should have resigned and allowed others to do it.
This inaction is part of a continuing pattern of neglect of duties which over the past several years has included refusal to hold legally required elections, lack of transparency, and failure to respond adequately to FOIL requests. Town residents recognized the neglect and fielded several las- minute write-in candidates for December’s fire district election.
The full election results show that the top five vote-getters were four write-in candidates and one incumbent. By any sense of fairness or democracy, this should have resulted in 2 of the 3 incumbent commissioners being voted out and a new majority in 2016. Instead, relying on quirky ballot construction, the three incumbent commissioners overlooked the vote totals and declared themselves the winners.
So, despite a strong vote of no confidence by town residents, the status quo continued. With Christmas approaching and no meaningful participation by the fire district, the city filed suit in Supreme Court and the town board voted to support the action as an interested party. This lawsuit forced the fire district to come to the negotiating table and thanks, in part, to the wisdom of Judge Coccoma, bought the town and city more time.
Even then, a temporary extension of the 2015 contract depended upon City Council approving the measure and a special meeting was set for Dec. 29. The mayor and nearly every member of Common Council attended, along with four of the five town Board members and many Oneonta residents. Not a single incumbent fire commissioner was present.
I and many others are grateful that Common Council showed good sense and approved the measure but this was not a foregone conclusion. Absent the approval, most of the Town of Oneonta would have been left without fire protection on Jan. 1, as the fire commissioners have admitted in court that they had no backup plan. Our town residents overwhelmingly want professional fire protection at a reasonable cost but the incumbent commissioners don’t seem to value it equally and have actually put the town in a worse negotiating position for this protection.
It is the New Year and a time of new possibilities and potential. The city has a nearly new mayor and a mostly new Council. These negotiations also need a breath of fresh air. The fire commissioners from 2015 have failed to do their one job and have lost the support of the town. At least two of them should do the honorable thing and resign from their positions, allowing the four new fire commissioners, who have more legitimate claims to the positions, to step in and negotiate the final contract with the new Common Council before the temporary extension expires.
Maintaining this collaboration is in the best interest of the Town and City and the safety and welfare of our residents and business owners is too important to gamble every December in a last minute game of chicken. We can and must do better.
County Representative, District 4
Former Oneonta Town Board member