A Good Idea From Fire Commissioners: Dissolve, Let Town Negotiate OFD Pact

Editorial for August 31, 2018

A Good Idea From

Fire Commissioners:
Dissolve, Let Town

Negotiate OFD Pact

The Freeman’s Journal – A packed house at Oneonta’s Elm Park Methodist Church in April 2017 urged town Board of Fire Commissioners: Renew the fire-protection contract with city’s paid Oneonta Fire Department. Sixteen months later, talks are still stymied.

When one least expects it, a breakthrough.
The Town of Oneonta’s Board of Fire Commissioners has voted, 3-2, to set a hearing to consider dissolving. The vote could come at the end of the hearing, scheduled at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 18, at Elm Park
Methodist Church.
Good idea. About time.
If the fire district is dissolved, a “fire zone” continues to exist within the town, so coverage will continue. The Town of Oneonta would assume responsibility for negotiating with the city. That’s good too.
There’s probably no one better than Town Supervisor
Bob Wood, previously a longtime fire commissioner himself, to bring talks with the city to a sensible conclusion.
For more than two years, negotiations have gone nowhere on extending the contract with City Hall for professional fire protection for the town’s Southside, and neighborhoods beyond the city’s East and West ends.
Only state Supreme Court Judge Michael V. Coccoma
imposing a two-year settlement in January 2016 assured businesspeople and homeowners coverage as negotiations continued.
The two commissioners objecting to dissolution are the newcomers, Al Rubin and Michelle Catan, who since their election last December have been foiled in efforts to get the talks moving again.
The three in the majority bloc, chair Johna Peachin, veteran commissioner Fred Volpe and Ron Peters, who is associated with Peachin’s accounting firm, have not responded to city Mayor Gary Herzig’s requests for negotiations, the mayor says.

As noted here before, Coccoma imposed a regimen that allocates one-third of the costs of the city’s Oneonta Fire Department (OFD) to property owners in the town fire district; the remaining two-thirds would be covered by city taxpayers.
An independent consultant agreed to by both sides came up with roughly the same formula.
Still, no movement.
The majority bloc has been tangled up in the issue of revenues created by the OFD’s ambulance squad, which generates about $1 million of the fire department’s $4 million budget.
In effect, those revenues – insurance payments generated whenever a city ambulance carries a patient from either the city or town to Fox or Bassett – pay down the total, meaning there’s less for city taxpayers and fire-district property owners to split.
The bloc believes the way it’s being done is illegal, but so far hasn’t found anyone with authority to agree.
Again, if an “i” or two needs to be crossed to bring everything up to Hoyle, Bob Wood has the understanding to figure it out amicably with Herzig.

There are implications for the future.
For one, a town can’t operate its own fire department under New York State law, an option the fire commissioners have been threatening to pursue in negotiations with City Hall.
However, if it came to that, the town could create a town-wide fire district that could do so, a lengthy process – but slower is probably better. Plus, that may never happen and shouldn’t – the town and city’s fates are linked.
Arguably, given the $1 million contribution from townsfolks, it makes sense for a liaison to be brought into discussions with Common Council on policies regarding the OFD. Perhaps Al Rubin, who has tried to be an honest broker since joining the fire board, would be a good prospect for this role.
Regardless, it’s time to move forward. If the majority-bloc fire commissioners have concluded they can do no more, it makes sense to leave the scene.
The Oneonta Town Board is more sensitive to what the public wants – only a handful or two of voters turn up at Fire District elections – and the public has said it wants the standoff resolved.
With Wood at the helm, along with town board members of good will, an end to a worrisome situation may finally be within reach.

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