Dissolution Tabled

Will Fire District

Survive? A Stormy

Meeting; No Answer

Unable To Agree, Fire Commissioners

Table Dissolution.  But For How Long?

Hands go up around the room as Commissioner Michelle Catan asks by show of hands who would support a contract with the City of Oneonta. (Parker Fish/AllOTSEGO.com)

By PARKER FISH • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com

Attorney Terry Hannigan explains to the crowd how the current fire contract is set up.  He said it takes advantage of town residents. (Parker Fish/AllOTSEGO.com)

ONEONTA – The Town of Oneonta Fire District lives to see another day.

With a motion on the table to dissolve the fire district,  Fire Commission chair Johna Peachin moved to table it at the end of a stormy meeting this evening.

The tabling passed unanimously, delaying action on dissolving for now – but for how long?

The commission has been in negotiations with the city for over two years on renewing a fire contract that expired at the end of 2016; state Supreme Court Judge Michael V. Coccoma imposed a two-year extension to allow coverage to continue while negotiations continues.

The contract enables the city’s professional Oneonta Fire Department to provide coverage to the town, primarily Southside and the east and west ends.

Tonight at the public hearing on dissolving, held at Elm Park United Methodist Church, commission attorney Terry Hannigan explained what he thinks is a sticking point.

“What’s going on now, and what has been going on, is that three-quarters of the town – those people that live and pay taxes in the Town of Oneonta Fire District – have been subsidizing ambulance service throughout the entire town,” said Hannigan. “Now I don’t mind paying, but I don’t want to be paying for other people. I want it to be fair, and I believe everyone should be paying their fair share.”

City Mayor Gary Herzig sees that issue as a red herring.  The ambulance service, whomever it serves, is a profit center, he says.  Its revenues reduce the cost of running the fire department from $4 million to $3 million, meaning – whatever the formula between the city and the fire district – both pay proportionately less.

The stymied fire contract has divided the commission into two groups: chairman Peachin, and Commissioners Ron Peters and Fred Volpe, who support dissolving the fire district as opposed to re-negotiating; and commissioners Al Rubin and Michelle Catan, newcomers who believe a compromise can, and should, be reached.

The constituents in attendance tonight – 40-50 in the audience – made it abundantly clear in the public-comment portion of the meeting that they do not support the dissolution of the commission and, thus, the fire district.

“I am willing to pay a little more if need be to stay with the city’s fire department, because they are professional firefighters, professional ambulance drivers, the whole nine yards,” said Molly Swain, who lives in the town.

Looking to gauge the public’s sentiment, commissioner Catan took an informal poll: “For those people who live in the town, if you would like to have a contract with the city, could you just raise your hand?” she asked.

Nearly every hand in the crowd went up.

William Erario, a town resident, questioned whether or not the commission was acting in accordance to the wishes of the residents.

“Do you know what my feeling is? Anybody else here, do you know what their feelings are? Have you reached out to your constituents? Have you asked?” questioned Erario. “Because any price, my life, my family’s life, my neighbor’s life, there’s no price on that.”

After tabling the dissolution motion, Peachin presented the commission with a draft of the 2019 fire commission budget. That draft was also tabled, but will be the main topic of discussion at a special fire commission meeting held at some point within the next week to accommodate the draft budget deadline of Sept. 25.

No date for the special meeting was agreed upon, and Peachin would not say whether or not the commission will vote on the proposed dissolution at that meeting.

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