Rhinebeck fire pact sealed in 5-year deal

The town and village of Rhinebeck have reached an agreement on a five-year deal for fire protection services, seven months after the previous one-year contract expired. And both boards will look into creating a single fire district for the areas currently served by the Rhinebeck Fire Department.

The contract agreement was announced July 14 at a town board meeting and followed a series of talks, begun last October, between town and village officials as well as representatives of the Rhinebeck Fire Department.

Under the new contract, the Rhinebeck Fire Department, which is operated by the village, will provide fire protection to the town at a cost of $160,000 in 2014, rising by $10,000 annually to $200,000 in 2018. The agreement can be terminated with 90 days’ notice.

In 2013, the town paid the village $147,000 for fire protection services. Since that contract expired, the town has been paying at an annual rate of $187,000 under an interim agreement. The village will reimburse the town for any overpayment based on the final contract rate for 2014.

The new contract was formally adopted by village trustees at their meeting July 22. The town board will take a formal vote at its next meeting, on Aug. 11, but board members have already said they agree in principle to the terms of the deal.

With its automatic increases and five-year term, the new contract addresses the village’s concerns about a revenue shortfall in the event of future contract disputes. In its 2014-15 budget, approved in April, the village had planned to receive $174,000 in fire protection fees from the town in 2015.

The pre-determined annual increases in the contract also address the town’s concerns about unplanned expenses.

While announcing the compromise, Town Supervisor Elizabeth Spinzia said the town wants a commitment from the village to move toward consolidating the Rhinebeck Fire Department and the town fire protection district to form a single fire district independent from the village government.

In a consolidated fire district, the village would no longer have budgetary responsibility for the fire department. Instead, those decisions would be made by an elected group of fire commissioners. Both the town and the village would provide funding in proportion to their assessed property tax bases.

“The village would be out of the fire business,” Spinzia explained at the July 14 town board meeting.

At the July 22 village board meeting, Village Mayor Heath Tortarella said that the trustees would discuss consolidation only after the five-year contract is approved by both parties. In the meantime, village attorney Richard Olsen is preparing an outline of the consolidation process, which would be subject to a permissive referendum.

“The village board has not stated a desire to be out of the fire business,” Tortarella told the Observer, “but we would like to continue working with the larger community to ensure that the best fire and emergency medical services remain available to our residents and that they are delivered in the most fiscally responsible manner possible.”

Spinzia said at the July 14 meeting that the town board would like to see all three fire departments that serve the town involved in the consolidation efforts, but neither the town nor the village can compel the Rhinecliff and Hillside fire departments to participate.

“We’re setting a table, and we’re leaving the door open,” said Spinzia.

Several volunteer firefighters from the Rhinecliff and Rhinebeck departments attended the town board meeting.

Kevin Asher, chief of the Rhinebeck Fire Department, thanked the town and village boards for their hard work in negotiating the current agreement, which he called an “enormous undertaking.”

“I don’t think the [consolidated] district is bad idea,” he added, “but I don’t want to see it rushed into.”

“We are moving in an overall positive direction,” Tortarella told the Observer. “With input from our residents, a full or partial consolidation may prove to be the best option as we look to ensure the safety of our residents in the coming years.”

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