Dec 04, 2009 Ami Olson Uncategorized
There are a lot of reasons elected officials might shy away from a conversation on consolidating two separate fire departments. Studying the complex issue can be expensive and time-consuming, and department pride does not always pair well with the controversial idea of consolidation. The whole idea can be downright messy.
But in Jordan-Elbridge, local officials are having that conversation anyway.
In July, a committee of elected officials and representatives from both the Jordan and Elbridge volunteer fire departments was formed to identify problems with the fire service and discuss the possibility of consolidating fire service within the town of Elbridge, said Elbridge Councilor George Betts, who chairs the committee.
Betts said the primary focus of the committee is to determine how to better provide fire service to town residents, and was driven in part by legislative changes in Albany that would become effective March 2010 and greatly affect consolidation of fire districts. Elbridge Supervisor Ken Bush said push from some community members to gather information on how the departments work together was also a driving force.
Since July, the group has met five times, with the next meeting set for Dec. 9, and while they are not working on a strict deadline by which to form conclusions, Betts said the committee has covered considerable ground.
“We have identified operational issues that need to be addressed, response being the same issue that confounds many volunteer departments,” Betts said. Among some of the chief concerns of the committee are the differing tax rates for residents in the two different fire protection districts, equipment purchasing and maintaining operable departments with volunteers.
Jordan Village Trustee Mary Seeley expressed to the village board last month that although there were many questions to be asked, and answered, by the committee, the group is taking a methodical approach with special attention to the identity of each community and department. Seeley represents Jordan on the committee and is also a longtime member of the Jordan Fire Department.
One of the goals of the committee was to conduct a self-study, rather than contract with an independent consultant for a “boiler plate study of little value to our situation,” Betts said.
An advantage to this method is that committee members are already familiar with the intricacies of the fire protection in J-E.
One aspect that could complicate the discussion is the difference in how each fire department is overseen. Both departments receive the same budget allowance from the town of Elbridge; in the 2010 town budget the departments are allotted $130,733. But the assessed value of properties in the two fire districts determines the tax rate for taxpayers, and that isn’t even between the districts.
The Jordan Volunteer Fire Company is an independent department that mans equipment owned by the village of Jordan. The department is overseen by its own Board of Directors; purchases through the town board and ultimately the taxpayers.
The Elbridge Volunteer Fire Department is owned by the village of Elbridge, and must clear purchases with both the village and town boards. The village board also has some authority over administration of the department.
In light of this fundamental difference, members of each department have different perspectives on what would be best for them going forward.
Jordan Chief Doug Milton said although he and the membership keep an open mind, there is some hesitance to change a system that, for Jordan, works well and has for many years.
But recent friction between the Elbridge department and village board has membership there leaning toward a board of commissioners, said Elbridge Chief Tim Ganey.
An elected board of fire commissioners would oversee both departments, taking village and town boards out of the equation but keeping the separate departments intact. It would allow for more streamlined oversight of both departments and could help cut down on equipment duplication, for example, and increase communication between the two entities.
But that is just one option, and committee members make it clear that no decisions have been made and all options are being discussed and studied.
Also representing the town on the committee is Councilor Vern Richardson. From the village of Elbridge, board members Chris DeCola and Fred Weisskopf and trustee Patrick Mooney represent the village of Jordan. Representing the Jordan firefighters are Milton and President Mark Ramsden; from Elbridge, Ganey and Jim Muench. Elbridge Village Mayor Hank Doerr and Elbridge fire chaplain Floyd Duger have also contributed to the committee.
While cutting costs and streamlining operations are on the committee’s agenda, the bottom line is providing the best fire protection possible, Ganey and Milton agree.
“People pay pretty good dollars for fire protection,” said Milton. “When they need you, they expect you to be there.”
Both chiefs also pointed out that the two departments already take the other’s equipment into consideration when making new purchases, avoiding duplication where possible. And residents can rest easy knowing that both departments will continue to work to keep them safe, regardless of the committee’s findings.
“If there’s a fire in the town of Elbridge, we’re both going,” Milton said.