Editorial: County should restore hazmat team funds

Sunday, October 19, 2008
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So much for the spirit of cooperation on joint ventures between the city and county of Schenectady.

The county’s financial pinch — so severe it could result in a double-digit tax hike next year — has prompted it to halve the $400,000 it was paying the city for hazmat services provided by the city’s fire department. (“Hazmat” is short for hazardous materials, as in what gets released during a chemical fire or spill.) The department’s hazmat team, whose members double as firefighters, is the only one in the county: There aren’t enough hazmat calls in a given year to justify training and equipping another. And most fire departments outside the city are staffed by volunteers, who are tough enough to recruit these days without making added demands on their time.

Fire Chief Robert Farstad estimates the department’s cost of running the hazmat team as only $200,176 — almost exactly the county’s proposed new contribution — but city council Finance Committee Chairman Mark Blanchfield argues it is much higher. And he’s probably right: Farstad’s estimate doesn’t include the share of his combined personnel and equipment costs, or wear and tear, attributable to hazmat calls. While it’s true the team responds to only 75 major hazmat calls annually (out of the department’s total of roughly 15,000), many of the regular calls are less serious. And the team is 30 members strong — roughly one-fourth of the department.

Without question, it’s a valuable service — worth more than $200,000 not just to the city, but to the towns. And city residents have to pay for it twice, through their city as well as their county taxes, so it’s not unreasonable to expect the county to pay a larger share.

Blanchfield’s suggestion at a meeting last week, that the towns develop their own hazmat teams, isn’t practical for the reasons listed above. What would make sense, assuming the county won’t relent and restore the money, is for the city to determine the service’s true cost, and develop a system for assessing the towns individually to cover it. If they balk, then the city should balk at continuing to provide the service — for them, not for its own residents.

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October 19, 2008
8:48 a.m.
whatshisname says...

It appears Mark Blanchfield feels slighted. Sure, the County could benefit somewhat by the City's investment but... The City chronically under-staffs its on duty fire shifts. The result is when there is a fire call in the City of any significance, they rely heavily on mutual aid provided by surrounding towns. The towns respond with their apparatus and mostly volunteer people. Mr. Blanchfield does not seem concerned about how much it costs the towns for wear-and-tear of their fire apparatus, fuel and other expenses incurred while providing aid to the City. Who pays for that, Mr. Blanchfield? Why don't you adequately staff the Fire Department to handle your own calls first and then complain about how much towns benefit from your hazmat service.

October 19, 2008
8:27 p.m.
Rene says...

I would first like to commend the hazmat team of Schenectady. They have worked very hard to achieve the level of expertise they are at now. I had an opportunity to see them in action over the summer during a possible chemical spill from a passing train in the town of Duanesburg. Fortunately the spill turned out to be a false alarm but let me assure you they treated it as though it was in their own back yard. They were like a well oiled machine and knew exactly what needed to be done. I was relieved to know we had such a valuable service available to us.

I think Mr. Blanchfield's suggestion to discontinue the team to the towns is a serious disservice to the residents of the county. It would appear as though the county is paying for the entire cost of the team, perhaps overpaying at the $400,000 level, perhaps underpaying at the $200,000 level, but indeed paying. If I understand this correctly, I would have to say the residents of the towns ARE paying for the hazmat team through their current county tax payment. I would ask how you figure city residents are paying twice for the service when it appears as though the county is footing the entire bill for the hazmat team? If Mr. Blanchfield wants to provide the service solely to the city of Schenectady then let the city residents pay the bill. I would, however, not expect the county to continue funding the team and charging the residents of the towns for a service we can no longer receive.

I would like to add that I am definately glad to know the mutual aid agreements in place among all the emergency services in and out of the county were not developed by politicians like Mr. Blanchfield. There would never be the commaraderie nor the cooperation among departments that I have grown to respect if this were the case.

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