Rhinebeck town officials weigh mediation to resolve fire contract dispute with village

Rhinebeck town officials are considering hiring a third-party mediator to help resolve deadlocked negotiations with the village over the costs of fire protection services.

Town board member Elaine Fernandez proposed the measure at a June 23 town board meeting, at which village Mayor Heath Tortarella, Deputy Mayor Howard Traudt, and fire chief Kevin Asher were present for an hour-long rehashing of the dispute.

Town officials are asking for greater budgetary oversight of the Rhinebeck Fire Department, which is operated by the village but serves the town under contract. Meanwhile, a contract for fire protection services in the current year has not been finalized.

Both sides broadly agree that the town should pay $160,000 this year for fire protection services. However, they disagree over the structure of the deal—the town favors a flat monthly rate while the village prefers a two-tiered payment plan, which would result in the contract rolling over at a higher annual rate of $169,000 if a new agreement is not reached for 2015.

The village has already announced that it intends to charge the town $174,000 in 2015, based on its 2014-15 budget. But town officials are resisting further rate hikes. Town Supervisor Elizabeth Spinzia said at the meeting that the town has not been hit with similar increases by the Hillsdale and Rhinecliff Fire Departments, with which it also has contracts.

“This is not an issue of us squabbling with the village over $14,000 or $24,000,” Spinzia explained at the meeting. “The concern for me as chief financial officer of this town body is to mitigate my constituents’ exposure to unplanned expenses.”

Following a heated meeting in May over the 2014 contract, the town hired Syracuse attorney Brad Pinsky, a fire department specialist, who recommended a number of changes to reduce costs and generate revenue. On Pinsky’s advice, the town proposed charging certain ambulance fees directly to users, but at the June 23 meeting Tortarella said that the village board had rejected the idea.

Tortarella explained that the ambulance was purchased with community donations, so the village board did not consider it reasonable to begin charging constituents for ambulance use.

The town incurred $3,175 in fees and expenses for Pinsky’s services, comparable to the $3,000 expenditure authorized by the village for its own fire consultant, who is assessing the department’s longer-term needs and creating a fleet management plan.

In April, Asher notified the village board that the department’s primary attack truck, which remains out of service with severe engine damage, would need to be replaced. At a June 20 meeting, the board authorized repairs for the truck at a cost of roughly $17,000.

Explaining the decision, trustee Scott Cruikshank said, “It takes the pressure off. We can do a good and careful study, and bring the town in on the decision for a new truck.”

Cruikshank told the Observer, “We are offering the town a seat at the table in any fire department discussion we have.”

While town and village officials remain at odds over fire department costs, they all had praise at the June 23 meeting for Rhinebeck’s volunteer firefighters, especially their efforts fighting the June 21 fire at Eveready Diner, which is in the town fire protection district covered by Rhinebeck Fire Department.

Said Spinzia, “We are thankful for the service we get from the Rhinebeck Fire Department, and we are doing our diligence for our citizens in the fire protection district.”

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