No resolution on Rhinebeck fire protection contract

by Carisa Weinberg

Town and village officials in Rhinebeck have yet to resolve a dispute over a new contract for fire protection services, though the previous one expired months ago.

The Rhinebeck Fire Department is operated by the village, but it provides fire protection to the town in exchange for an annual fee. For the village’s upcoming fiscal year, which starts in June, the village board has asked the town to cover 51 percent of total fire department costs, or $169,000. The latest offer the town has made public is $156,000.

The disagreement stems from differing opinions about the town’s responsibility for certain fire department expenses.

According to town board member Bruce Washburn, about 45 percent of the fire department’s calls last year were in the town fire protection district, which he said corresponds to a $146,000 share of fire department expenses. Washburn said the town’s offer of $156,000 would be “splitting the difference” between that amount and the village’s $169,000 request.

Village officials said the town’s share should be 51 percent because they include mutual aid calls in the calculation. The fire department provides mutual aid assistance to other fire departments at its own expense. In return, it benefits from the aid of those departments for major fires within its service area.

Village Mayor Heath Tortarella offered the example of a March 21 house fire on Route 9G in the town fire protection district that required the assistance of several outside departments. According to Tortarella, “The town will gladly accept the help of other participating agencies but is refusing to share in the cost of returning the favor.”

Washburn pointed out, however, that the town can only legally use tax revenue to pay for services that its residents are eligible to receive. As such, he said, the town does not recognize the expense of answering calls outside its protection district.

While the town and village are at odds over fire protection costs, they share the same goal of reining in their budgets and capping property tax increases. The town has offered less for fire protection than the village requested, but its latest public offer is still up about 6 percent from last year’s contract. At $332,238, this year’s total fire department costs in the village budget are up about 10 percent from last year.

At its April 14 budget hearing, the village board announced an overall increase in property taxes of 4.89 percent for 2014-15, based on the assumption that the town will pay the full amount requested for fire protection services.

The matter is complicated by the fact that the village’s fiscal year starts in June, while the town’s starts in January. When talks between the two boards began in October, the village initially requested $187,000, which the town board said would increase its budget by 1 percent and push it over the tax cap.

At a budget workshop on April 2, the village board made substantial cuts to its fire budget, resulting in the $169,000 estimate for the town’s portion.

That budget was approved at an April 29 meeting, but at the same meeting Fire Chief Kevin Asher informed the board that the fire department’s primary truck is out of service with substantial engine damage. The necessary repairs are estimated at nearly $18,000. Asher proposed replacing the 26-year-old truck at a cost of about $400,000.

The board is seeking additional estimates before deciding whether to repair or replace the truck.

Meanwhile, Mayor Tortarella and Town Supervisor Elizabeth Spinzia confirm that discussions between the village and town to resolve the fire contract are ongoing.

The village continues to provide fire protection services to the town under a temporary agreement that can be terminated by either party with 60 days notice. Under that agreement, the town has been paying at the $187,000 rate. When a final contract is settled, the village will have to reimburse the town for any overpayment.

Tortarella expressed hope that an “equitable” contract will be executed soon, “allowing for continued service to our friends and neighbors in the protective district.”

“We’re not at war here,” Spinzia said. “We’re trying to solve a very complicated problem.”

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