Don Backman, councilman for that part of town covered by the Willowvale Fire Company wants to redraw fire district lines. According to Councilman Backman:
“It’s getting pretty expensive,” he said. “We have to look at how we can make it more fair.”Fair to whom? It may seem like a good idea to people in the Willowvale Fire District, but what about the rest of the town? Why should taxpayers in other districts be required to pay more fire tax just because Willowvale taxpayers want to pay less?
Councilman Backman, represents all of Ward 1, not just those in the Willowvale Fire District, although he lives in the Willowvale Fire District. Would Councilman Backman be considering redistricting if the costs were the other way around?
Perhaps a better way to handle the costs associated with the Willowvale Fire Company is to take a look at revenues and expenses to see where cuts might be made much like a business does when their costs keep rising.
For instance, General Municipal Law § 209-z became effective on August 1, 2007, and, applies to covered fire companies starting with fiscal years ending on and after August 1, 2007. That law states, in part:
1. Notwithstanding any provision of general or special law to the contrary, any fire company with revenues of two hundred thousand dollars, or such lesser amount as the state comptroller shall designate, that contracts with a city, town, village or fire district to provide fire service shall obtain an annual audit of its records by an independent certified public accountant or an independent public accountant. Such audit shall be an examination of the revenues and expenditures in connection with such contract or contracts.Looking at the 2010 budget for the Willowvale Fire District, the amount raised by tax was $391,388. Guess General Municipal Law § 209-z applies to the Willowvale Fire Company.
Are they in compliance? Has the Willowvale Fire Company been hiring an independent public accountant to audit their books?
General Municipal Law § 209-z also says:
2. A copy of the audit report in the form prescribed by the state comptroller and certified by the accountant shall be furnished to the entity, and the municipal corporation with which the entity contracts, within one hundred eighty days following the end of the fiscal year audited.By now the Town Clerk should at least have a copies of their audits for 2008 and 2009 which means that they would be available from the Town Clerk under the FOI Law. A FOIL request has been sent to the Town Clerk.
Then there is General Municipal Law § 204-a.
According to NYS Comptroller Opinion 2007-8 :
General Municipal Law § 204-a provides that a fire company, before engaging in fund raising activities, must notify the governing board of the political subdivision having general control of that company of the proposed activity. The governing board of the political subdivision may prohibit the fire company from engaging in fund raising activities or in any general or specific type of fund raising activity (General Municipal Law § 204-a  [a]). We have expressed the view that, instead of totally prohibiting fund raising activities, the governing board of the political subdivision may place reasonable restrictions on such activities, which may include a requirement for the submission of a financial report on the receipts and expenditures of the proceeds of such activities, and submission of related books and records of the fire company for audit (Opn No. 88-55, supra ).Hmm...we don't remember Willowvale Fire Company ever notifying the town board of any fundraising they plan to do. Interesting though...requiring the submission of a financial report on the receipts and expenditures of the proceeds of their fundraising activities. Perhaps this needs to be further researched to determine if Willowvale Fire Company should be reporting their fundraising activities to the town board.
In an April 13, 2010 Observer Dispatch article, Willowvale fire costs highest in New Hartford, Supervisor Tyksinksi said:
...he had heard several complaints from residents of the Willowvale fire district about the costs.Let's keep in mind that Willowvale fire rates are higher than other town rates because of the cost of building a new firehouse and the cost of the pension benefit plan. Willowvale fire district residents had a chance to vote on each of these issues; the rest of the town did not have a vote!
Both issues were discussed at numerous town board meetings; there were public hearings on each; there were newspaper articles and we blogged about the retirement benefit. How many of the "complainers" sat at home and never bothered to go to the polls?
The point of this blog is not to say that we necessarily believe there are problems with the way the Willowvale Fire Company is managing their money. However, there does need to be some accountability and perhaps some cost-cutting on the part of the fire company. The laws allowing for accountability are in place; the town board needs to make sure that the laws are followed. An extra set of eyes might be able to find cost-cutting measures that might help to reduce the budget, thus reducing the fire tax.
One last note, although the residents in the Willowvale Fire Company are obligated to pay for the new building, the retirement incentive plan can be reversed by the collection of signatures presented to the town board to force it to a vote. Perhaps if the residents in that district are so upset with their fire tax, someone might actually decide to collect those signatures instead of complaining.
There are other recent laws that have been passed in relation to fire districts and companies; you can read some of them on the State Comptroller's website.