Rhinebeck town and village at odds over fire contract

The town of Rhinebeck has signed its 2014 fire protection contracts with two fire departments, but the third has been held up by mutual discontent.

At a town board meeting Jan. 13, the board approved contracts with the Hillside and Rhinecliff Fire Departments, but adjourned a public hearing on the Rhinebeck Fire Department contract for two months pending the results of an audit by both village and town on fire calls.

At issue is a requested $55,000 increase by the village for the town portion of the Rhinebeck Fire Department budget for this year.

Village officials contend that fire department records show 52 percent of response calls involve town areas while the town pays only about 40 percent of the budget. Town officials say they want to audit the records themselves before reaching any conclusion.

The budget for the Rhinebeck Fire Department, which is located in the village, is billed to both village and town residents. That expense-sharing has been the topic of heated discussion between town and village officials since October 28, when village officials presented a case for dramatically increasing the town’s portion.

Village Mayor Jim Reardon and Trustee Heath Tortarella appeared before the town board several times during the budget process and afterward to discuss the fire contract. Reardon also criticized the town board in a public notice on the Village’s website Dec. 13 after the town budget was passed with no increase for fire department funding.

The town and village boards then held a joint workshop on the issue Dec. 23, where, before cooler heads prevailed, sharp comments on both sides appeared to fan the flames.

First, Tortarella proposed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that would act as an interim contract starting Jan. 1. In it, the town would pay at the requested new rate of $187,953 (up from the $132,829 currently in the budget) until the town and village came to terms on a new contract, with a retroactive reconciliation after the final contract is signed.

Town Councilwoman Gina Fox responded, “Heath, it was just shocking that we got such an increase this year when it first came to us in the budget workshop. It was just way higher than any of the four budgets that I’ve worked on.”

She added, “And it just seemed unreasonable, so that’s why questions were raised about what we should be covering. Should we be covering administrative costs? You know, there apparently are guidelines from the state that maybe we shouldn’t be. And at the threat of ‘sign it or we walk,’ which is what the mayor presented to us–”

“Excuse me, but that’s not what I ever said,” Reardon interrupted.

“Could you not interrupt, please,” Councilman Joe Gelb cut in.

“So,” Fox continued. Only to be interrupted again.

“Please speak accurately,” Reardon said.

Fox continued, “When we were presented that ‘it’s too late and you have to sign it as it is’–”

Tortarella cut in to explain that he had presented the village’s requested increase at three separate town board meetings, which he said added to village frustration when the town board approved its final budget Nov. 18 with little change in the fire line.

Gelb responded that the town board was well into its budget discussions by the time the request was presented. “We didn’t really have a lot of time to react to it. The budget was pretty much set when we [heard about it], and I think that’s what caused a lot of the angst on both the village’s part and on our part,” he said.

Later in the meeting, Reardon spoke to set the record straight. He said he set up the current tracking of what fire calls come from where in 2010 when he realized there was no system. With four years’ worth of data, he added, village officials now enough information to suggest a change in funding was warranted.

“Contrary to what Gina had said before, I never said that the village…would not provide fire service to the town…What I said was we had no intention of continuing an agreement that was going to cost our taxpayers dollars,” he said.

On the other hand, he added, the village fire department, even without a signed contract, has no intention of ignoring town fire calls when they come in. “We want to come to some reasonable agreement here and not just ignore the fact that we have concerns and you have concerns,” he told the board.

The meeting ended with the town board agreeing to pay the higher rate starting Jan. 1 while the issue is being explored. They also set a 60-day period in which two town board members and two village officials would audit fire department records to determine the fairest way to allocate the expenses.

At the Jan. 13 town board meeting, civility returned.

Reardon told the board he had been talking to the county about how to get the town its own electronic version of the fire department records in order to make auditing and monitoring records easier.

“It’s a complicated process with a lot of information that we’re trying to—I don’t know if audit’s the right word—but really look at so we can make sure that we feel we’re on an equitable fee schedule with you,” Supervisor Elizabeth Spinzia responded.

Adding to the contract complications is the realization by the town board and its attorney that the town may be paying for fire department equipment that is technically owned by the village, which legally it cannot do. The town budget that was passed for 2014 includes $162,529 for the fire department. Of that, $15,000 is for an ambulance, $9,000 for a fire truck, and $5,700 for fire hydrants.

The Rhinebeck Fire Department has the largest budget of the three that contract with the town. Its total district budget for 2014 is $256,968, an increase of $21,916 over 2013. In Rhinecliff, the total district budget for 2014 is $124,718, up $905 from last year, and the portion coming from town-wide tax payers is $62,055. The Hillside district’s budget is $116,100, the same as last year, with $32,384 coming from town taxpayers.

The public hearing on the RFD contract was adjourned until March 10.

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