After 10 months of spirited debate, the Town of Hampton and its fire department appear to have finally made some progress on the department’s budget.
The town presented to the department a one-year $31,984 contract during last week’s monthly board meeting and members of the all-volunteer organization will consider the offer and provide an answer by the town’s next meeting on Nov. 7.
The contract represents a 15-percent increase over the town’s most recent proposal of $27,813, which was rejected by the fire department in January. The department has operated under its 2012 budget ($25,316) since turning down the town’s offer.
The latest proposal, however, still falls short of the $37,000 the department requested earlier this year.
That request was rejected by the town board.
“We had already passed our budget and there was no way we could accept the request,” Supervisor Dave O’ Brien said.
Unable to reach an agreement, the department hired Pinsky Law Group of Syracuse to finalize on its behalf a contract with the town.
In May, the town received from Bradley Pinsky two contract requests, each of which was worth $132,000 over three years. The difference was the annual increases. The first request asked for $37,000 this year, $45,000 for next year and $50,000 in 2015. The alternative was for the department to accept the town’s initial offer of $27,813 for 2013, but the contract would then jump to $50,000 in 2014 and $54,187 in 2015.
Since that time, the two sides have had very little dialogue and the town even took a cursory look at alternative means of providing its residents with fire protection.
However, with the return of the 2014 budget season, the topic again took precedence. After a month of crunching numbers, the department’s level of funding was one of the few outstanding budget items left to determine and a hearing was held last week to determine the will of the public.
At the outset of the meeting, the differences between the two sides appeared as pronounced as they were nearly a year ago.
“What is your number one priority to the residents of this town?” department president Eric Mead asked. “As a public servant, my number one priority is serving the people.”
Councilman Tamme Taran said her number one priority is keeping people in their homes.
“We need to find a happy medium. Everyone wants more money but the post is only so big,” she said.
“You need to realize public safety is the utmost thing….there is no way of paying taxes if you’re not alive. We’re talking about public safety not fringe benefits,” Mead said.
Councilman David Jensen said the board had to balance public safety with the will of the people.
“We’re trying to stretch the money the best we can. I have neighbors who are losing their jobs at GE (General Electric). How do you tell them their taxes are going up $400 or $500?” Jensen said.
Former councilman John Mashak expounded on Jensen’s statement, saying the $12,000 he pays every year in taxes was high enough.
“I know times are tough. I work for crap and can barely afford myself, but there are essential services and non-essential services,” Chief Joe Mead.
Members suggested the town consolidate some of its highway services with Whitehall and Granville and redistribute the savings to the department. But Frank Baker, highway superintendent, said he has approached both communities about doing just that and neither is interested.
After an hour of back-and-forth, O’Brien asked board members what they would like to do in regards to the department.
O’Brien said the town had three choices: It could keep the department’s funding the same; it could raise the department’s funding to $50,000 (the amount members had requested for 2014 in May); or it could increase the department’s allotment by 15-percent.
All the members said they couldn’t justify the increase the department was looking for but were in favor of a 15-percent increase.
“I think 15-percent helps the town and it gives the fire department some money. I agree they probably need more but we’re too small of a town to open our pocket book,” councilman Herb Sady said.
Joe Mead, who said members of the department had never received from their attorney the town’s offer for a 15 percent increase, asked what the outlook would be future years if they accepted the offer.
Taran said it’s too premature to look at next year’s numbers, but said the town would consider percentage increases in the future.
Eric Mead said the department would have an answer by the Nov. 7 meeting and the sides expressed the need to work together moving forward.
“We can’t keep arguing like divorcees,” councilman Dave Perry said. “We’re small and we all have to work together.”