May 21, 2014 Allie Wenner Uncategorized
At the May 19 East Syracuse Village Board meeting, the East Syracuse Fire Department gave its second presentation in six months to the board about the possibility of dissolving the fire department and creating a fire district.
Last fall, the fire department’s attorney Mark Butler outlined why the department believes the creation of a fire district is the best option for the village, town, residents and fire department. However, the timing wasn’t ideal: the village was in the midst of looking into the possibility of eliminating its police department and the town was already in the middle of its budget process.
This time around, Butler made a similar presentation, with a few modifications based on concerns that were made by residents and government officials in the fall.
“The advantages to the village are very significant in terms of monetary savings,” Butler said. “The fire department becomes a nonissue for your governance and there is a transparency that your board will have, along with the town board and the public, that doesn’t currently exist in terms of fire department governance and operations. We see this as a win-win-win.”
There has been tension between the village, its fire department and residents of the north end of the town of DeWitt that spans over many years, mainly because the fire department and some town residents believe that the village should be more transparent in how it spends its money on fire protection.
The town of DeWitt contracts with the village of East Syracuse for fire protection on the north part of the town. This fire district covers not only the village and parts of Erie Boulevard, but neighborhoods in the town of DeWitt like Park Hill and Franklin Park.
As a part of that contract, the town gives the village $1 million every year to spend on fire protection. The fire department claims that in 2013, it found that about $250,000 in reserves that it should have been receiving was not there.
“Roughly $200,000 was supposed to be reserved on an annual basis,” Butler said. “Over the last seven years, if that had been done, it should add up to $1.4 million… A new rescue truck will cost between $700,000 and $800,000. The fire department leadership has found that there are no reserves. There is a need for new equipment, and the reality would mean a bond – further borrowing.”
Village Clerk Pat Derby said that some of these ideas stem from the fact that the village’s fire department budget lists the department operations and expenses, but other parts of the budget and other accounts have expenses that are part of the fire department too, such as insurance, and employee benefits.
Some believe that the village subsidizes its government with revenues taxpayers in the north part of the town pay for fire protection. Because villages are not allowed to have districts, it is harder to tell exactly where village taxpayers’ money is being spent when they receive their tax bills.
“When people who live in the north part of the town get their tax bill, there’s a line that says ‘fire protection tax, and that’s exactly how much they pay towards fire protection services,” Derby said. “In the village, when we get our tax bills, it only says ‘village tax,’ and that’s what you pay.”
The fire department began the process of trying to form a fire district more than three years ago. In the fall of 2010, department members voted 40 to 3 to ask the village to dissolve the fire department and create a fire district, according to East Syracuse Fire Department Captain Mike Cramer.
He said the village did not originally comply with the request, so the department worked on its own to compile the statistics and to pursue the issue, which led to the presentation given last fall, and more recently, last week.
The new proposition
Under the fire department’s proposal, the East Syracuse Fire Department would be dissolved and would instead become the East Syracuse Fire Department Inc,. a not-for-profit corporate entity. Additionally, responsibility for fire protection would shift from the village to the town, meaning the town would have jurisdiction over the ESFD Inc. and would be liable for its actions. However, the area of the fire district would stay the same under the proposal.
The ESFD Inc. would contract with the town and would be responsible for not only creating a budget and presenting it to the town board by Aug. 1 each year, but would also take responsibility for personnel, apparatus and equipment, paying bills, planning for the future and the election of chiefs and officers.
A big change from the original proposition has to do with the number and responsibilities of the ESFD Inc.’s board of directors, which would be in charge of operations. There would be five members who are part of the ESFD Inc. and who would be elected by other members. Additionally, there would be one director from the town board, who would be appointed by the town board and one director from the village board, appointed by the village board. And finally, there would be two members of the public who would be jointly appointed by the town, village and ESFD Inc., bringing the total to nine directors.
All of the village caretakers – fire department members who are paid by the village to maintain equipment – would be hired by the town, which would save about $150,000 in payroll costs, according to Butler. The town would also pay $48,000 annually to the village for use of its fire station and equipment.
“We haven’t worked out the numbers completely, but taxes should theoretically go down if the village’s books are clean,” said DeWitt Supervisor Ed Michalenko. “But if the village is subsidizing itself out of the northern fire district, [the tax rate] would be the same or slightly increase.”
Butler gave the same presentation to the DeWitt Town Board at its May 12 meeting. The board voted 6 -1 in support of moving forward with discussions about the matter contingent upon village approval.
But the village board did not make any formal decisions following the presentation on Monday night. East Syracuse Mayor Robert Tackman said he wants to sit down with the town and both boards’ attorneys before committing to anything.
“I still haven’t had time to look over the numbers,” he said. “It’s extremely early – before we write off one of our departments and turn it over to another organization, we want to make sure that all of the numbers are correct for our residents … We feel that we’ve been diligent about trying to keep our books open to fix this mythological idea that the village has been subsidizing the budget.”
Tackman and the rest of the board plan to meet with Butler and the town for further discussion sometime over the next two weeks.
The next village board meeting will be held at 7 p.m. on June 2 at village hall.