Fire department merger talks draw criticism in Fonda
FONDA For Fonda Mayor Bill Peeler, the decision to pursue the consolidation of the Fonda Fire Department and the Town of Mohawk Fire District was as simple as ordering dinner.
“What would you do if you wanted a whole pizza and you only had two bucks?” he asked. “You’d chip in with your buddies. That’s all we’re doing with the fire services.”
At a fire commission meeting a week ago, the village Board of Trustees decided to move forward in contract negotiations with the larger Mohawk district. Early estimates suggest the village could save slightly more than half of its department’s $43,000 annual budget through consolidation.
But while the choice seemed clear to Peeler, it has turned into a hot button issue. In preparation for next week’s village board meeting, the village fire department drafted a lengthy letter to all village residents and local media. While it admits “the Mayor and the Board of Trustees made a valid point in their argument for sharing the Town of Mohawk’s fire protection with the Village of Fonda,” it criticized the way Peeler prompted the change.
“This historic decision to move towards an expansion of the Mohawk Fire District was made without including the Fonda Fire Department,” the letter said. “The members of The Fonda Fire Department feel highly disrespected that after 139 years of serving the community we would be abolished without even a voice in the matter.”
The letter is one of several ways Fire Chief Donald Wagoner and his department publicized their discontent with the likely consolidation.
“I’ve given the department 20 years,” he said. “We risk our lives every time the siren goes off, and the mayor just turns around and says ‘We’re dissolving your department. Goodbye.’ It’s a slap in the face.”
Peeler called Wagoner’s resistance to the change “disgusting” and not in the best interest of the village, but he’s mainly confused.
“I don’t know why someone would fight so hard for something they’re not getting paid for,” he said, adding that the chief is probably trying to preserve his title and avoid the reapplication process for the larger organization.
The mayor also said the village would actually be safer under the protection of a well-funded town fire district. “If you look at any fire department that is productive, that can buy and maintain their equipment, they have a budget over $100,000, not counting private fundraising,” he said. “Our village just can’t afford that.”
He pointed out the village has been saving more than $10,000 a year toward a new fire engine for as long as he can remember. At current prices, it will take another 16 to 25 years to raise the necessary funds. After consolidation, the Mohawk Fire District will have a yearly budget of roughly $150,000, allowing it to more easily purchase and maintain up-to-date equipment.
With the village as fiscally strapped as it is, Peeler said he and the board are trying to save money by cutting duplicated services.
“The chief says we’re supposed to be saving the fire department just because it’s been here for 139 years,” he said. “I’m a business guy. My feeling is you have to keep moving and being productive.”
Wagoner hopes the department’s letter will bring a few residents out to the next village board meeting, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Monday in the village offices on Main Street. Fire department consolidation will most likely be discussed, but Peeler said action is unlikely, as he is still in the middle of negotiations.