T he Hampton Town Board has no legal obligation to negotiate a contract with its volunteer fire department according to representative Mackenzie Jewell from the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control.
Members of the fire department, however, continue to insist otherwise.
Jewell told members of the Hampton Volunteer Fire Department that the town has the authority to determine the sum it pays the department for providing fire protection and that it’s up to the department to decide if they can continue to operate on that amount.
“They have the right to pay whatever they want to pay or they can seek someone else to provide fire service,” Jewell said.
Those claims were supported by Kara Lais, a senior associate with Fitzgerald, Morris, Baker Firth PC, the town’s attorney.
But Eric Mead, president of the fire department, said its lawyer refutes those claims and the members maintain the department has the authority to set a price for the services it renders.
Jewell’s statement, which came during a special meeting held last Thursday, contradicts the department’s assertions that the town is legally compelled to sit down and negotiate a contract with the organization.
Members of the department argue that as a private organization, it has the right to set a price for its services.
Mead made the analogy of a trash service provider, which has the right to increase the cost of picking up garbage and the customers can either accept and pay the increase or look for a new trash provider.
But according to Jewell, that analogy more accurately applies to the town.
“You (town board) have to decide how much money you can give and you (fire department) have to decide if they’ve given you enough money to operate,” she said. “It’s a tough spot to be in.”
The town and the fire department are in disagreement over the department’s level of funding and last week’s meeting, which was attended by nearly two dozen residents, did little to resolve the matter.
The department has asked the town for $37,000, an increase of $11,500, or nearly 50 percent, from its current allowance.
Members say they actually need $50,000 and are looking for a multiyear contract that would bring their funding up to that amount over a period of several years.
They say years of under funding (they received only $9,000 a year until 2011) has prevented the department from upgrading equipment and they need more money to keep pace with the escalating cost of equipment and un-funded mandates.
There are also a number of costly recommendations, which the department isn’t obligated to follow, but which could potentially increase its liability if it didn’t and something were to happen.
The town has offered the department a one year contract worth $27,813, an increase of 10 percent.
Supervisor Dave O’Brien has said the town would like to do more but are constrained by increases in workers’ compensation and the state’s mandated 2 percent property tax cap.
“What we’d like to do and what we can do are two different things,” he said.
The contract dispute doesn’t appear as if it will be over anytime soon.
Mead said after last week’s meeting the department doesn’t intend to back off its demands and the town insists its budget is already set for this year and there is no wiggle room to increase expenditures.
There’s also little incentive for either side to give in.
In the absence of a new contract, last year’s agreement will continue to be in effect through 2013, meaning the department is legally obligated to provide fire protection and the town is legally obligated to provide the department funding at last year’s levels.
What happens beyond this year is unknown. The town is required by law to provide some form of fire protection. Councilperson Tamme Taran said board members intend to speak with other departments to gauge their interest in providing fire protection for Hampton and how much they would charge to do that. The Fair Haven Fire Department receives $4,541 from the town to provide fire protection to the residents of Low Hampton.
“We’re going to explore all our options,” Taran said.
Mead said he was doubtful the town could find another department willing to provide protection for less than what Hampton does.
“All I can say to the taxpayers is hold on,” Mead told the board.