Rotterdam fire companies pose costly dilemma
Proposals to improve stations shot down by voters
ROTTERDAM Dave Monroe doesn’t understand why the Schonowe Fire Department keeps asking for a new multi-million dollar station.
He acknowledges the small brick firehouse he can see from his back window needs work and says he is more than supportive of modest improvements. But modesty isn’t the word he uses to describe the two proposals he’s voted against over the past six years.
A plan pitched in 2006 would have roughly doubled the size of the 9,840-square-foot building and cost $5.2 million. Another submitted to voters in August of last year asked to bond the $3.3 million cost for a new 12,200-square-foot station that would entirely replace the original, built in 1948.
Monroe regarded them as excessive for a shrinking company with fewer than a dozen members certified to attack interior fires. And he found out he wasn’t alone as he went door to door campaigning against the fire company’s bond resolution last summer.
“Many of them said it would be much easier and cheaper to merge with South Schenectady,” he said of the larger fire company located about two miles away but still in the town.
But consolidating some of the eight volunteer fire companies isn’t a discussion that is occurring openly in Rotterdam, a town with about 29,000 residents and no paid fire departments. Even the New York Citizens Empowerment Act of 2009 — state legislation that allows 10 percent of registered voters in a given tax district to petition for a referendum on consolidation or dissolution — hasn’t spurred any outward effort to reduce the number of fire districts in town.
Not that this is unusual, explained Bill Young, counsel for the Association of Fire Districts of the State of New York. Fire district consolidation hasn’t taken hold anywhere in the Capital Region and only a few select places across the state.
Young argues this is because taxpayers ultimately want to keep their local firehouses, even if they sometimes balk at some of the costs. But that also means a district like Schonowe needs to find creative ways of modernizing without drawing opposition from tax-weary residents.
“There is no one easy solution,” he said.
Rotterdam is served by seven volunteer fire districts, each funded through property taxes assessed in the coverage area and governed by a board of fire commissioners responsible for an annual budget. In addition, the town contracts with Plotterkill, a not-for-profit fire protection company.
These departments responded to a total of 1,522 calls in 2011, according to figures submitted to the state Office of Fire Prevention Services. Only a fraction of these calls — generally less than 10 percent — were for active fires, while a far greater percentage were for medical emergencies. Fire companies also respond to home emergencies such as cellar pump-outs and overheated appliances.
All eight departments are staffed almost solely by volunteers. Their operational and capital expenses, however, cost taxpayers a combined $2.88 million, according to figures included in the town’s 2013 budget.
Capital expenses can range from minor improvements to the fire station or new turnout gear for firefighters. Much larger purchases, such as major additions or the purchase of fire apparatus, are subject to referendum and are paid for with borrowing.
Carman and South Schenectady — two of the town’s busier fire districts — both have relatively new fire stations. But the other five districts and the Plotterkill company are in dated facilities, some considered impractical or even unsuitable by modern standards.
Schonowe’s two capital projects were met with significant resistance from residents. With fewer than two dozen active members — including fire police — Schonowe is among the smaller of the town’s companies.
Yet the fire district is budgeted to collect about $327,000 to support its operations in 2013. Monroe, who has closely followed the company’s expenses over the past six years, questions whether the costs are reasonable.
“It gets to a point where it’s excessive,” he said.
Of course, Schonowe wasn’t the only fire company to have its capital project voted down in Rotterdam recently. Pine Grove, a 30-member department that also covers parts of Princetown and Guilderland, was hoping to renovate the station on Dunnsville Road and add 4,200 square feet.
The $3.3 million project pitched to voters in 2011 would have represented the first substantial renovation of the station since 1984 and only the second since the building was constructed in the early 1970s. The renovation would have brought the building into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities act, moved electric utilities out of a designated flood plain and added space for modern equipment.
But the referendum resoundingly failed. Fire Commissioner Herb LeTarte III said the company is now faced with pecking away at some of the nagging problems: They’ll spend $185,000 to replace the station’s roof this year and then try to replace an aging generator next year.
“It’s an expensive proposition to fight a fire these days and meet all the regulations,” said LeTarte, a firefighter with nearly four decades of experience.
LeTarte also sees the other side of the argument. He understands that almost every municipal entity is being asked to pare down expenses and he can envision a time when the fire companies of Rotterdam will eventually face consolidation.
“I think it’s going to be considered down the road,” he said. “Rotterdam is a big town, but we have eight fire stations.”
That doesn’t mean consolidation will be easy or effective, even if a conversation about it does begin in the near future. Fire companies offer a community identity that is not readily abandoned.
“It’s not easy to just dissolve a fire department and there’s some camaraderie with the gang down there,” LeTarte said. “It would be like breaking up a team.”
Young, who served as Schonowe’s attorney during the most recent project proposal, acknowledged the multi-million-dollar costs of new stations may seem shocking at first. But ultimately, he said, the overall expense of operating the volunteer companies is far less than having one paid department.
“That really is just a drop in the bucket for the cost of what a paid service would be,” he said of the capital project expenses.
The city of Schenectady’s fire department, for example, has a budget of more than $10 million for 2013. The department has 110 members and answers nearly 15,000 calls annually — or roughly 10 times the number fielded by all of Rotterdam’s districts combined.
Rob Leonard, a spokesman with the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York, said the 890 volunteer companies across the state save taxpayers an estimated $3.7 billion in expenses, including $2.5 billion in labor-related costs alone. He said having a town with a large number of fire districts may seem duplicative, but is ultimately a more cost-effective way of delivering fire protection for many municipalities.
“It is still an effective system,” he said.
Part of the answer to reducing fire district costs could reside in operational consolidations, explained Tom LaBelle, the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs’ executive director. He said even consolidating whole districts wouldn’t likely diminish the number of firehouses or the need to keep them modern.
Many stations are located centrally within their coverage area so they can be easily accessed by volunteers. LaBelle said closing them would likely result in a loss of volunteers and possibly longer response times.
“At the end of the day, a lot of departments are learning consolidation isn’t the answer to the problem,” he said.