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Oswegatchie-Heuvelton fire contract up in the air


HEUVELTON — Residents of the town may have to rely elsewhere for its fire services if the town council does not agree to a 3-percent increase in the Heuvelton Fire Department’s budget, according to the Heuvelton village officials.

The town council was unable to reach an agreement with the village of Heuvelton Monday. Council members said they could not agree to the increase, saying that an increase above the town’s 1.7 percent tax cap could put a financial burden on taxpayers.

This year the town contracted for $108,261, according to a three-year agreement made in 2012. Village request

requested 3.5 percent or a $3,789 increase in the fire department’s budget on behalf of the Heuvelton Fire Department Monday.

The village of Heuvelton, has already agreed to the 3.5-percent increase. The village pays about 77 cents per $1,000 per taxable property for its fire services. Oswegatchie residents will pay 61 cents per $1,000 taxable property.

The department also serves a portion of the town of Macomb and the entire town of Depeyster. It has yet to file a contract with either community.

Fire Chief Nicholas B. Friot said the increase for Oswegatchie would equate to the price of a “bottle of water” per household.

“The budget is bare-minimum,” Mr. Friot said. “We’re not asking for additional equipment supplies, we’re just asking to maintain or refurbish what we already have. It costs $500 for the new mandated bailout harness system-that is in addition to the $2,000 it costs per set of turnout gear. Also, each firefighter has a pager that costs another $400, so it costs nearly $3,000 per fireman to outfit them properly to fight fire safely and effectively.”

Mr. Friot cited an increase in state mandates such as turnout gear updates every 10 years, fire harnesses, and new communications equipment have forced the department into a financial bind.

New turnout, which has to be replaced every 10 years, can cost about $500 per firefighter, Mr. Friot said.

“The average age of a truck in our department is 16 years-old,” Fire department member and Heuvelton Village Trustee Jack Wood said. “Costs are going up everywhere. We have to make up for increased costs in our building and truck insurances, electric and fuel just like everyone else.”

Following an executive session, town council members said that they could agree to no more than a 2-percent increase in the fire department’s budget.

They also recommended going over the financials with the town’s budget officer, William E. Dashnaw.

“The last thing anyone wants to do is make it tough on you,” Councilman Bruce O. LaRose said. “If it wasn’t tough on us, it wouldn’t be so tough on you.”

“If you don’t take it and say we’re not going to serve the town of Oswegatchie, what does that say to the people-outside the town? What does it say that they are not worth anything? If taxes go up, residents are not going to be happy. It’s a no-win situation,” Councilwoman Lillian O. LaRose said.

Town Supervisor Alfred J. Nichols said he is aware that the bulk of fire calls Heuvelton receives come from Oswegatchie.

“If we could give you 10 percent, we would,” Mr. Nichols said.

Village and fire department officials said they would agree to anything less than 3 percent, Mr. Wood said.

The town has contracted with the village of Heuvelton for over 80 years. The village last contracted with Heuvelton in 2012. The contract has since increased by about $2,000 each year since.

The Heuvelton Fire Department covers all roads located within the boundaries of the Town of Oswegatchie and the Lovejoy Road from Route 6 to the Bromaghin Road intersection, including Bromaghin and Middle Roads.

If the town and fire department are unable to reach an agreement, the town will have to contract with other fire departments or villages nearby-Rensselaer Falls, Ogdensburg and Morristown–which would drastically increase the response time by at least 20 minutes for some areas of the Oswegatchie, Mr. Friot said.

“All of the fire departments we have in St. Lawrence County are great,” Mr. Friot said. “But it doesn’t matter how great they are, they aren’t going to be able to save a house or a business within that added amount of response time.”

The costs could be more to the homeowner in the long-run, Mr. Friot said. “Homeowners will end up paying more for their home fire insurance if the departments are farther away,” Mr. Friot said following the meeting.

The department’s 37 members raised $61,000 for equipment in the last few years through fundraisers such as pancake breakfasts, Mr. Friot said.

“People give a lot of their time to the fire department, between 90 hours of classes for fire training, an 8-hour OSHA class, and training each month.” Mr. Friot said. “Our volunteers have families, regular jobs and their own interests. The fire department is already a big part of their lives. They are on call 24-7, and they are happy to give that time, but you have to meet them in the middle. One person can only give so much. You can’t then ask them to fundraise more to put fuel in the truck. That’s wrong.”

The village and the fire department will go back to the drawing board before the next Oswegatchie town board meeting in May, Deputy Mayor Gus J. Guardino said.

“What the fire department asked is not unreasonable,” Mr. Guardino said. “We’ll have to go back next month and try again.”

The village and the fire department will have several months to negotiate before the budget is voted on at the end of the year, Mr. Nichols said.

“It’s kind of sad that money would stop someone from saving a life,” Mrs. LaRose said. I’m sorry, but that’s scary.”

“I hope we can come to an agreement, but we can’t cut ourselves short,” Mr. Friot said. “Our firefighters are already risking their lives. I can’t ask then ask them to go to a fire without proper gear.”

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