Editorial, August 10, 2018
The Arithmetic Is Inexorable:
2/3rds City, 1/3rd Town Fire District.
Make The Deal
Judges generally are loath to get involved in situations that should be resolved through the political process. But once in a while their hand is forced.
Such seems to be the case shaping up in the now years-long standoff between Oneonta City Hall and the Town of Oneonta Board of Fire Commissioners over what the town should pay to be covered by professional firefighters in the city’s Oneonta Fire Department.
In December 2016, with the city-Fire District contract expiring, the dispute ended up in state Supreme Court Judge Michael V. Coccoma’s Cooperstown courtroom.
Unable to broker an agreement, Coccoma imposed a two-year contract, with the Town Fire District paying $1.1 million a year for the OFD’s services.
He also instructed both sides to choose a mutually agreeable mediator to propose a fair outcome, and they settled on VFIS (Volunteer Firemen’s Insurance Service), based in York, Pa., the nation’s foremost arbiter of this kind of thing.
The resulting report allocated 64.2 percent of the cost of operating the OFD to city taxpayers, and 35.8 percent to Town Fire District ratepayers, which include the big boxes on Southside Oneonta (in the town).
The outcome, according to city Mayor Gary Herzig, was in the neighborhood of the $1.1 million Coccoma had already decided upon. City Hall accepted the report; the fire commissioners did not.
Since, much has happened, but the bottom line is: No progress.
As he’s said all along, Mayor Herzig says today he is agreeable to a settlement tomorrow.
The traditional formula has been roughly: The city pays two-thirds; the fire district pays one-third.
“We’re comfortable with that formula,” said Herzig, referring to the VFIS numbers. “The outcome is very similar to the formula that’s been used for the past 20 years. (The VFIS formula) is more complicated. The bottom line is not very different.”
Because the fire commissioners’ leadership stopped calling back, he continued, City Hall has stopped trying.
“We’ve said now for months and months, our door is open. We’re willing to sit down and negotiate at any time. The response we get is: ‘We will not negotiate with you. What you’re doing, it’s illegal.’ I have no idea what they mean.”
The new fire commissioners, Al Rubin and Michelle Catan, thought they had found a solution in appealing to state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli to audit the situation and recommend a solution. But it seems that DiNapoli, sensibly, was reluctant to allocate resources to a local situation with no statewide implications.
Rubin believed including OFD’s ambulance service revenues – due to insurance payments, EMS runs at a profit – would open the door to a deal. But Herzig said the revenues are part of the $4 million OFD budget – there’s no secret pot of money to be discovered. If you push in here, it comes out there.
In the end, it’s hard to escape the arithmetic: one-third to the Fire District, two-thirds to City Hall.
Which brings us back to where we started.
The judge directed the parties to bring in a mediator. That was done. A formula was recommended by the foremost experts. Still, the deadlock continues.
At the end of this year, five months from now, Judge Coccoma’s order expires. If he fails to extend it, most of the Town of Oneonta (minus that covered by the West Oneonta volunteers) will be without protection.
At one point, the commissioners said they would start their own department; that seems impractical. Otsego County’s impressive local volunteer departments have built expertise over decades, even generations. You can’t just snap your fingers and duplicate that.
The other option would be to contract with a volunteer department. But volunteers, trained as they may be, are mostly working fulltime jobs, some out of the area. Can they be expected to stand ready, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for another Christopher’s inferno along Otsego County’s foremost commercial strip?
The VFIS report – you can Google it at www.allotsego.com – reports the Insurance Services Office rated the OFD service are 2/2Y, put it among the top 3 percent best in the nation. Businesses in the Fire District (and city) are seeing low insurance rates as a result.
Judge Coccoma was right to impose a two-year settlement; the alternative was an unacceptable threat to public safety. Not to pre-judge the judge, but what option does he have if the fire commissioners and city officials appear before him again at year’s end?
We’re all adults here. Life is compromises. The fire commissioners have no option but to make the best deal – somewhere in the vicinity of one-third vs. two-thirds – and move on.