FROM THE DESK OF: LINDA M DOBSON, TOWN OF WHEATLAND SUPERVISOR
REGARDING : THE WHEATLAND – SCOTTSVILLE JOINT FIRE DISTRICT
I would like a moment to discuss the notification of a joint public hearing by the Town and the Village governments pertaining to plans to create a joint Wheatland- Scottsville Fire District.
First and foremost, it is important to realize that the same residents who are currently served by the Scottsville Fire Department will continue to receive their fire protection from the same firefighters. These residents are also the same residents who currently carry the financial costs of the building, equipment and other costs such as insurance, etc. A portion of Village taxes cover these expenses and a portion of the Town taxes labeled as “Wheatland Fire Protection” on the Town tax bill pay the remainder of the costs. Therefore, the same residents will continue to bear the costs for the service whether it’s a department of the Village or a district.
The current Scottsville Fire Department is a department of the Village just as the assessor is a department of the Town. Hence, the Village Board serve as the Commissioners for the Fire Department. All spending, debt and planning is entrusted to the Village Board. The Town pays a portion of Village office staff salaries as part of the service they provide to the current fire department. Although Town residents living in the Wheatland Fire Protection District (East of Wheatland Center Road and outside the Mumford Fire District) pay approximately one half of the cost of “doing business”, they currently have NO vote in planning, spending, or debt. The Town reviews a budget proposal and determines whether to negotiate the cost or accept the proposal. NYS Law states that the cost is a “negotiated” cost.
Secondly, this proposal does not represent a quick nor recent process. There was consideration and a report conducted in 2009, a special advisory committee report in 2013 and the current 2019 – 2020 planning sessions. All these activities were driven by the concern in volunteer recruitment, increased costs of doing business and a long- range perspective of how to continue to provide service locally. In our Town and in our Village, one must also determine what is a reasonable response time to any emergency event whether it be fire or medical. The question became, how can we best continue to take care of ourselves in the most appropriate manner? Other options were discussed by the Supervisor, Mayor, Deputy Supervisor, Deputy Mayor and both attorneys along with Scottsville Fire Department leadership. It was determined that we have the positive opportunity to continue to provide local service, with local volunteers, paid for by the same people who currently pay for the service. The only change is administrative. The current debt will eventually be transferred to the newly created district and out of the Village budget, the debt remains paid for by the same people as now, the equipment which was paid for by the same people is turned over to the district to serve the same people, the clerical services paid to the Village front office is instead paid to a district treasurer/secretary. Again, merely a “redesign” and not a fundamental change. There is no impact on service delivery.
The most significant change is the following: Village government no longer “runs” the fire department nor budgets for the cost on their taxes. The fire department becomes its own taxing authority just like the Town, the Village, the School and the Mumford Fire District. The Town does not “gain” anything from this proposal. The Town government has the obligation by NYS Law to provide the tax collecting service. Once we receive the district budget, we notify the County what figure to put on the bill, our tax collector collects the taxes, and the supervisor signs a check turning the money over to the fire district. The Town is merely the “flow through” for monies from Village residents and former Wheatland Fire Protection residents to the new joint district. This joint fire district is not part of Town government. The newly created district answers directly to the people of the Village and people of the current Wheatland Fire Protection District without going through the Village government as is currently the process. The residents served by the joint district will vote on commissioners who develop the budget and plan for future needs
Thirdly, all discussion as to the debt the Village currently has for the fire department has followed a two - track process. One track was if our Senator and Assemblywoman can successfully pass special legislation in Albany, then the debt would be transferred to the new district as soon as they can secure financing. The same dollar figure as the Village currently has as debt. If Albany is not able to respond in time, then the Village will continue to hold the debt but will receive a check from the new district to pay that debt as soon as taxes for the district are collected. Again, the same people/residents paying the same amount as in 2020. Any projections of future costs of the district beyond 2020 is a process of the newly appointed, and later elected, district fire commissioners.
When it comes to the Fire Pavilion, that is neither owned by the Scottsville Fire Department nor the Village of Scottsville. It is owned by the Scottsville Fire Company. It does, however, sit on land currently owned by the Village. The Village has agreed to deed the land over to the Fire Company so that the building and the land will be owned by the same entity. A nominal fee will be set by the Village.
Historically, fire departments across New York State are moving to the district model and not remaining under Villages. Towns are NOT permitted to have fire departments per New York State Laws. Although we are required to provide fire service to our residents a Town must contract for such services and not deliver them ourselves. We cannot own the equipment nor hire the staff. We do have the duty to collect the taxes for a fire district.
It is anticipated that the proposed joint district will provide increased accountability to the public, will be more transparent to the taxpayer (currently is within the Village budget and bills), is required to be audited by NYS annually (is not true in the current design), and better enable planning for the future.
I have provided the links below if you would like further background information:
Fire Protection in NYS: How Is It Provided in Your Community? - Office of the New York State Comptroller
Basic Fire Department Structure - Association of Fire Districts of the State of New York
Village of Scottsville; Town of Wheatland Informational Meeting November 2019 - Scottsville Fire Department