B y Derek Liebig
Members of the Hampton Town Board defended themselves last week against criticism that they don’t support the community’s fire department.
Frustrated by allegations that the town was running an “anti-fire department campaign,” officials reiterated their support last week for the Hampton Volunteer Fire Company, but continue to contend they can’t afford the organization’s contract demands without imposing a significant tax increase on residents.
“This is not an anti-fire department campaign,” Supervisor Dave O’Brien said. “It’s a difference of opinion over funding levels and how we get there. This is about how we get to a level that supports their needs without sticker shock for residents.”
The town and the department are at odds over the organization’s level of funding. Earlier this year, the town offered the department a one-year contract worth $27,813, an increase of more than $2,300 or 9 percent over the organization’s current level of funding.
Members of the department, however, have said the proposal is insufficient to keep up with the soaring cost of operation and allow the department to upgrade its equipment, and thus rejected the offer. Upset with a perceived lack of negotiations, the department halted discussions with the town in March and hired an attorney.
Last month, their attorney, Bradley Pinsky of Pinsky Law Group in Syracuse, presented the town with two separate contract proposals, each of which amounts to $132,000 over a three year period. The difference in the proposals is the annual increases.
The first proposal would see funding raised to $37,000 in 2013, $45,000 in 2014 and $50,000 in 2015.
The second proposal would see the department accept the town’s previous offer of $27,813 in 2013 but would then increase to $50,000 in 2014 and $54,187 in 2015.
Officials said if they conceded to those requests, residents would pay significantly more in taxes.
“At their levels we would have to impose a 14 percent tax increase on residents in fire district one,” O’Brien said. Fire district two, which is the area referred to as “Low” Hampton, is covered by the Fair Haven Fire Department.
Board members expressed reluctance to raising taxes that much.
“Times are tough for a lot of people and that’s a lot of money,” said Dave Perry, adding that many businesses and organizations have had to make due with less during the continued economic recession.
But in his letter to the town, Pinsky wrote he believes the town has the ability to “pull money from other sources in the town’s possession.”
Town officials, however, dispute those claims.
O’Brien has said the town’s unexpended fund balance is already low and the town’s attorney, Matt Fuller, said the board is prohibited by law from using any money from the highway department fund. They also can’t use money in the general fund that supports the highway department, such as the highway superintendent’s salary.
“My curiosity and question for Mr. Pinsky, is where are these other sources,” Fuller said.
Members of the town board and the fire department have not spoke in over a month and other than the contract proposal presented by Pinsky, there has been no correspondence either.
A special meeting to discuss the proposals was held last week, but no one from the fire department attended.
The board did entertain questions from the dozen or so residents who attended.
Joe Panoushek asked to board if they had looked at alternative forms of fire protection if the two sides were unable to reach an agreement.
O’Brien said the board has not requested any proposals from neighboring departments and said it doesn’t plan to unless it becomes evident a deal will not be reached.
In the event a deal is not reached, last year’s contract would remain in effect through the end of the year.
During last week’s meeting, O’Brien did appoint a safety council that will be tasked with gauging public opinion on matters and offering the board advice on various projects, including funding levels of the fire department.
The council will consist of former Supervisor Don Sady, Planning Board Chair Bonnie Hawley, and David Bridges.
“We have to listen to the town’s people,” board member Dave Jensen said. “We are the stewards of their money.”
The remainder of the meeting was held behind closed doors in executive session, a common practice governments employ when discussing contract negotiations, personnel or legal matters.
O’Brien said the town will develop a response, likely in the next two weeks, after Fuller has had a chance to review the department’s proposals.