By Sarah Hall
A recent audit of the Cicero Fire Department by Onondaga County Comptroller Robert Antonacci revealed the department is in significant fiscal stress—but that wasn’t the only revelation to come out of the investigation.
Another important consequence of the comptroller’s audit is the deepening divide between the town board, particularly Supervisor Mark Venesky, and the fire department, which sees the board’s efforts to block its construction of a new fire station as a personal vendetta brought on by their questioning of the division of tax money among the town’s five fire districts.
“I think this is personal,” said Jim Perrin, president of the CFD Board of Commissioners. “We hit [Venesky] hard with some questions at budget time… Since that point, our relationship has deteriorated… there is no friendship. There is no working together whatsoever. Things have gotten real bad between us.”
At a press conference held Wednesday, June 29, Venesky said he and former Supervisor Jessica Zambrano requested the audit after the department’s 2016 budget allocation requests last November.
“The numbers brought to us by the board of commissioners included a request for an increase in $88,000 in the fire protection contract, which led then-Supervisor Zambrano and I to ask specific questions about the department’s finances,” he said. “Those questions went unanswered, so we requested an audit of their books.”
Venesky said the five-year plan laid out by the district in the audit did little to assuage the board’s concerns. As such, he said the department’s financial condition was such that the town would not support the construction of a new station.
“The [department] could quite possibly not be able to pay for the building,” Venesky said. “Our concern is that if they cannot make the payments because they’re under fiscal stress, the cost of the building will be passed onto the people.”
The department had planned to build the new station on property it owned next door to the existing Station No. 1, which stands at 8377 Brewerton Road. The build was approved by taxpayers in the Cicero Fire District in November of 2014 by a vote of 80-32. The referendum allowed the district to sell the 4.5-acre lot at 8387 to 8391 Brewerton Road to the department to make way for the building, allowing the department to tear down the existing station and construct a $4 million building to replace it. The fire district will then lease the building back from the department.
Voters rejected a $5.6 million building proposal in February of 2014, which would have increased fire district taxes about $75 per year for a home assessed at $100,000. In August of that year, a proposal to sell the 4.5-acre lot was defeated as well.
Fire department officials said the new structure is necessary because of significant structural issues in the existing building, as well as asbestos on the second floor and numerous safety concerns for the volunteer firefighters in the department.
Antonacci’s audit, released June 17, certainly confirms that the fire district is in financial duress. Using the state comptroller’s fiscal stress meter, under which a rating of zero indicates no fiscal stress, the CFD had a rating of 74.2.
According to Antonacci, the financial issues largely stem from the fact that the district spent down its fund balance in lieu of raising taxes for the last five years.
“Instead of raising taxes, they relied on their fund balance year after year,” Antonacci said. “And you don’t want to have too much fund balance, because that can be a problem, too, but now they’re at a deficit.”
Antonacci also emphasized that the district’s woes were not the result of any kind of illegal activity.
“There’s been no fraud, no malfeasance,” he said. “It’s just about the allocation of tax dollars and the sufficiency of that allocation.”
Perrin said the district had no objection to the comptroller’s finding.
“The comptroller’s right. We’re under stress,” he said. “We’ll be under stress forever, unless I can put away $10,000 each year, which we’ll never be able to do.”
But Perrin said that didn’t mean putting off building the station was a good idea.
“We know for the next few years it’ll be tight for us financially, but we also know we’re freeing up $130,000 three years down the road that would help offset this cost,” he said. “Could we wait five years? Possibly. We know from not building last year to this year it’s cost us $200,000 more now. Although the $4 million loan [we’re taking out for the construction] doesn’t go up, it’s cost us $200,000 to offset the contracts. So if we wait five years, who knows what happens? Is it going to go up to $1 million?”
For now, Perrin said the department will continue to operate as it always has.
“We have nothing to hide. We knew this was the way it was going to go,” Perrin said. “We’re going to continue to operate the way we’re doing and plan our future the way we’re doing it.”
For its part, the town board hopes to see some changes down the line. Venesky said the town is working on developing a master operating plan that will ostensibly give better direction and consistency in matters of budgeting.
“We need to take the politics and personalities out of the fire business,” he said. “We need to also address the fact that most people on the town board don’t understand the fire service. The budget needs to be part of a comprehensive plan. We’re working on that, and we hope to have it in place by the end of 2017.”
However the town and the fire district proceed, it’s clear that tensions remain. During the press conference held June 29, Venesky stood with members of the town board; however, no members of the CFD were represented before the press. In addition, Town Councilor Mike Becallo, a member of the CFD, did not stand at the front of the room with the board, but at the back of the room with the other members of the fire service. The picture certainly didn’t jive with Venesky’s assertion that he wanted “to work as a team and as allies instead of the adversarial relationship we’ve had in the past.”
According to CFD Chief Jon Barrett, members of the CFD were the last to know about the press conference.
“We got an email yesterday that there’s a 1 p.m. press conference, so I call all of the other fire chiefs, and they said, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ve already been told what’s going on,’” Barrett said. “But where’s Cicero? We’re off to the outside.”
Barrett said he believed Venesky was attempting to play the different departments against each other.
“Other fire departments, they’re being used as pawns,” he said. “When the bell hits, we use each other. We have mutual aid boxes set up. We all work together. But it’s causing animosity… It’s a one-sided story, and here we are behind the game, and we have to catch up. It’s not right. You can’t use your members as pawns. The other departments don’t need to be dragged into this.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.
Feb 21, 2017