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SL tries again to change fire dept. funding

May 25, 2010
By CHRIS KNIGHT, Enterprise Senior Staff Writer

SARANAC LAKE - Village officials are making another push to change the way surrounding towns are billed for fire and ambulance services provided by the Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department.

Village Manager John Sweeney sent letters Friday to the towns of Harrietstown, North Elba, St. Armand, Franklin, Santa Clara and Brighton notifying them that the village will be developing new fire and rescue contracts using a formula based on taxable assessed value.

Sweeney told the Enterprise that an assessed value formula, which has been tried unsuccessfully in the past, would equalize the amount property owners in the village and the towns pay for fire and rescue services. Each property owner would pay the same amount per $1,000 of assessed property value, although that dollar figure has yet to be established.

"It's all about parity," Sweeney said. "If you take all of the taxable property and break it out proportionally, everybody, including the village, is paying an equal share based on what services they're getting."

Under the current fire contract formula, the village and the towns pay a percentage of the fire department's $664,000 budget based largely on the volume of calls in each community. The village, which has the most fire and rescue calls, pays 45 percent of the department's expenses. The town of Harrietstown's share is 27 percent, and the towns of North Elba, St. Armand, Santa Clara, Brighton and Franklin cover between 4 and 7 percent. Brighton and Franklin only pay the village for ambulance services.

Under the current formula, Trustee Allie Pelletieri noted that neighbors on the same street pay different amounts for fire and rescue services.

"Why should a village household pay $200 a year for fire and rescue protection and a house 50 feet away - outside the village limits - pay $20 for the same service?" Pelletieri said in a village news release. "It doesn't make sense, and it isn't right."

Trustee John McEneany said there are baseline costs associated with running the fire department, regardless of how often volunteers are called out.

"I think everybody realizes that whether or not the fire department gets called out, there's still a charge," McEneany told the Enterprise. "You have to have trucks, you have to have a building, you have to have drivers, and they've got to get paid even if they never pump a gallon of water."

Sweeney noted that the villages of Lake Placid and Tupper Lake are both charging for fire protection using an assessed value-based formula.

"We're not reinventing the wheel," he said. "It's just that there are many more players involved here."

The last attempt by the village to switch to an assessed value formula for fire and ambulance contracts, in late 2006, turned into a bitter dispute between the village and surrounding towns, some of which would have seen their contracts double. Town leaders argued that the village was unfairly trying to shift the burden of the fire department budget to the towns. After weeks of tense negotiations, the village eventually withdrew its plan.

Brighton Supervisor John Quenell, who was a town councilman when the issue came up before, was opposed to the idea then and continues to be against it.

"My immediate thoughts are in opposition," Quenell said Monday. "I got into it very deeply in the last go-around, and I came up with the same answer every time. Why? It seems to me the eminently fair way to bill for services is based on the number of calls."

Harrietstown Supervisor Larry Miller, who also fought against the change to an assessed value formula in 2006, didn't return a message left at his office Monday.

Sweeney admitted that the village should have used a different approach the last time around. In determining the rate per $1,000, he said the village erred by using each town's total assessed value, including both taxable and non-taxable properties.

"When we did this four years ago, we did it the wrong way," Sweeney said. "We didn't address the taxable vs. non-taxable issue correctly, and this time we will."

Sweeney said he'll also ask Treasurer Paul Ellis to separate the costs of the fire and rescue functions of the department so the towns will see the village's actual cost and see that the village will not profit from the towns' support.

He's also optimistic that the towns will agree to the change because soon they'll only be contracting with the village for fire services. The fire department is in the process of creating a new rescue corporation that will eventually contract with the towns for ambulance services on its own and also bill insurance companies for rides, lessening its tax requirements.


Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or



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