Fire protection cost talks get heated in Rhinebeck

A tense meeting on May 20 between Rhinebeck town and village officials brought an ongoing dispute over fire protection costs close to a boiling point.

The Rhinebeck Fire Department is operated by the village but serves the town by contract, which expired at the end of 2013. While new contract terms are ironed out, the village has been providing fire protection services under an interim agreement.

With negotiations deadlocked after a heated debate at the meeting, Town Supervisor Elizabeth Spiniza gave notice that the town intends to cancel the interim agreement. “You don’t leave us any option,” said Deputy Supervisor Joseph Gelb.

Village Mayor Heath Tortarella told the Observer after the meeting, “We have no intention of cancelling and are not prepared to discuss the changes to fire department operations that would result if the agreement is cancelled.”

Spinzia told the Observer the town board has not scheduled a vote on the issue, but it is consulting with an attorney to “find a long-term and equitable solution for fire protection in Rhinebeck.”

At issue is a disagreement between the town and village over how to calculate the town’s share of fire department costs, which are on the rise. Town officials have fought a rate increase on the grounds that it would push the town over its budget tax cap. They would also like a role in setting the fire department’s budget.

In February, the two parties reached a tentative agreement on a $160,000 rate for the town’s share this year. According to Tortarella, that amount was based on the town paying at a $147,000 rate for the first five months of the year (the amount originally offered by the town) and then paying the remaining seven months at the $169,000 rate requested by the village.

But town officials drafted a contract with a flat monthly fee at the $160,000 rate, and on May 20, the village board refused it. Instead, the village is seeking monthly payments that reflect the two-tier rate structure used to reach the compromise amount.

While the town’s total would be the same either way, the village’s preference for a two-tiered structure stems from concerns about next year’s contract. The town’s proposal includes a clause that would extend fire protection at the $160,000 rate if the 2014 contract expires without a replacement. Village officials say that would give the town no incentive to negotiate a new contract at a higher rate.

Tortarella announced at the meeting that the village intends to charge the town $174,000 in 2015, based on the village’s 2014-15 budget, which includes the fire department. He asked the town to consider a two-year contract to avoid another round of negotiations in the fall, when the town sets its budget.

Both Spinzia and Gelb refused.

“You’re asking for the impossible,” said Gelb, noting that the town must adhere to its own budget process, and it had been a struggle to get town board members to agree to the $160,000 for this year alone.

Village Trustee Scott Cruikshank told Spinzia and Gelb that the village sees fire protection costs as non-negotiable.

When the time comes to negotiate the 2015 contract, he said, “You’re going to sit in front of us just like you are today and say ‘no, we don’t want to bust our tax cap’… and you want to negotiate again. We’ve borne the costs. We know what the costs are. We don’t want to negotiate.”

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