The Somerset Town Board and Barker Village Board have voted to sponsor legislation to expand the town’s fire protection district to include the village.
Town and village officials are seeking this legislation in order to spread the cost of fire protection equally among all residents and to protect the village in the case of firefighter accident liability.
The next step is for the proposal to be passed by the State Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
“It’s moving forward in Albany, and we expect it to be done by the end of the year,” said Somerset Supervisor Daniel Engert, who introduced the idea to Barker Mayor Aaron Nellist and the Barker Fire Department.
The town has hired Syracuse attorney Brad Pinsky to pursue the matter.
“This is a win-win-win for everybody,” Engert said.
He said, “The tax rate will drop for everyone, because more will be sharing in the cost.”
Engert said the town currently has $220,000 budgeted for the fire protection district, which includes 100 percent of the necessary worker’s compensation insurance. The village has $11,000 budgeted for fire protection for the current year, Nellist said.
“This is a broader, fairer distribution of taxing to fund the fire protection district,” Engert said. “And it will save taxpayers money in the long run.”
The Barker Fire Department is located in the Village of Barker, with a population of 540, although it has also long been the sole provider of services for the town, with a population of 2,800.
“Towns are not allowed to have fire departments under state law, but villages are,” Pinsky explained. “By expanding the fire protection district to include the Village of Barker, it extends the fire protection district to include the entire town and village, and it places the Fire Department under the control of the town, instead of the village, but it’s a contractual agreement.”
Pinsky said there are compelling reasons for Somerset and Barker to work together.
“First, the town currently pays 94 percent of the cost of the fire protection, and so this is a matter of fairness,” he said. “All residents of the town and village would pay the same rate for fire protection. It will equalize it, and it would be one tax issued by the town.
“Second, because the village is currently the entity in control, it is responsible for providing all worker’s compensation benefits, and the burden is only on the village,” Pinsky said, despite the fact that the town pays for the insurance. “But the village would not have the resources, necessarily, for this, if something happened.”
“And another good reason is that the village and town operate on different budget schedules, with the village’s fiscal year from June to May and the town’s from January to December. Now the budget would run from January to December, making it easier for the Fire Department.”
Pinsky is not only an attorney, but he is also a fire chief with the Manlius Fire Department. He said he has handled this sort of fire protection expansion “eight to nine times in the past 10 years throughout the state.”
“This law makes everything easier, fairer and safer,” Pinsky said.
Pinsky said that the change would be attractive to the Fire Department not only for planning purposes because it would be dealing with just one budget cycle (Somerset’s), but also because it would gain more autonomy.
Under state law, “A town has more limited control over a fire department than a village would,” Pinsky said. “And the town would simply have a contractual agreement now with the fire department.”
Pinsky said that after the law is passed, expansion of the fire protection district would be subject to permissive referendum, “so there is no mandatory voting on this, but there would be a vote if people protested it.”
“But I find it hard to imagine why anyone would be against this,” he said.
Nellist added, “This offers the Fire Department a more sustainable future.”
He said that under the current plan, “We just had another layer of government getting in the way. The Fire Department would come to us and present its budget (requests), and we then would have to go to the Town Board and present the fire department’s budget again. So one of the things that would be eliminated would be the lawyers’ fees to draw up an extra contract.
“And if everyone in the district is paying the same amount, that’s $11,000 that we had in our village budget this year for fire protection that I can give back to the community or use for things like sidewalk or road repair,” he added. “And the liability would be transferred to the town. If something had happened, God forbid, our insurance rates would have risen exponentially, and I don’t know if the village could have sustained that.”
Robert Wendler, president of the Barker Fire Department, said he and the fire chief have signed an initial letter of endorsement for the plan.
“All three parties – the Fire Department, town and village – are hoping to make this process run more smoothly and efficiently,” Wendler said.