Champion Fire Company seeking to form fire district


Champion Fire Company seeking to form fire district

CHAMPION — About 30 people gathered Wednesday evening in the Champion Fire Company station for an informational session to gauge the public’s interest in forming a fire district.“We want to put forth the facts and put to rest misconceptions,” said Willie M. Craig, a member of the fire company’s board of directors.In 2014, town residents voted to dissolve the Champion Fire Protection District for which the town contracted with Champion Fire Company, Great Bend Fire District, West Carthage Fire Department and Copenhagen Fire Department. The dissolution was proposed by members of the Champion Fire Company in order to form a fire district — a political entity with its own elected governing body that may incur indebtedness and require the levy of taxes. The fire company members claimed they were not receiving their fair share of the funds collected for fire protection.After the dissolution, the town terminated its contract with the Champion Fire Company, saying the fire company failed to provide reports on training and physicals. The town devised a new fire protection plan, contracting with the Great Bend, West Carthage and Copenhagen departments.Since that time, the town and fire company have been in litigation. The fire company filed an Article 78 proceeding claiming, among other things, that the decision was “arbitrary and capricious” and in violation of state town law. The company maintained that, under town law, the town could not cancel the contract unless both parties agreed to it and a public hearing was held to determine whether the move was in the public’s best interest. Recently the state Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the town of Champion, affirming the Appellate Division decision that the town acted under the law.Mr. Craig pointed out the cost of litigation was covered by the fire department, not using taxpayers’ funds. He also said although the fire company is not under contract with any municipality and cannot conduct any firefighting activities, its members have continued to provide community services, maintain the company’s station and apparatus as well as raise funds.There is no lien on the fire station and the company owns two fire engines, a 3,500-gallon tanker and 20 complete sets of turnout gear.Mr. Craig said the tanker was the most important piece of equipment since there are no fire hydrants in rural areas.After explaining the coverage areas for the town of Champion’s current fire protection plan, Mr. Craig said there are two ways a fire district could be created. The town board could decide to form a fire district if “they deem it in the public’s best interest.” Or it could be accomplished under Town Law section 171, “upon the petition of resident taxpayers owning taxable real property aggregating at least one-half of the assessed valuation of all taxable real property of the proposed district owned by resident taxpayers.” Mr. Craig said although “fire district rates are almost always more costly” — the current fire protection rate is 85 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value as opposed to the Great Bend Fire District at $1.65 and Carthage-Wilna Fire District at $2.46 — with a fire district where taxpayers have more control.“The funds are not controlled by the town but by a board of commissioners whose only job is fire protection,” Mr. Craig said. “A fire district is a good thing for taxpayers. They have more say in how fire protection money is spent.”He explained if a fire district were created, the town board would appoint five community members who reside within the fire district to serve as commissioners, a nonpaid position. The board of commissioners would develop a fire protection plan, contracting with volunteer fire departments, establish mutual aid policy and establish a budget. “At the end of the calendar year, all five of the appointed fire commissioners must either run for election or vacate their position,” he said.Mr. Craig said members of the fire company had sent out 369 letters with response cards. Before the meeting, 74 cards had been returned with 60 in favor of the Champion Volunteer Fire Company continuing to operate and 63 willing to sign a petition.Mr. Craig said one of the main reasons people put for their non-support was firematics.“Champion does not nor ever had a drill team and has no plans to start one,” he said, noting the departments that contract with the town for fire protection do have teams, which “can affect fire protection.” The consensus of those attending Wednesday’s meeting was that they supported the fire company.“The Champion Fire Company is dead center in the town — it makes no sense to close it down,” said Mr. Craig. “Firefighters just want to fight fires.”The next step for the fire company will be to obtain signatures to petition for the creation of a fire district.A member of the audience asked how this time would be different from the last vote. As a board member, Mr. Craig said he took “the hit” for the failure of their objective to form a district since the referendum was to dissolve the fire protection district but did not include the creation of the fire district.“It’s all in the wording,” a voice from the audience said.Vernon A. Scoville asked about the recent five-year contracts for fire protection the town approved.Town Councilman Louis Waite, who is a former Champion Fire Company chief, said the contracts were not effective until Jan. 1 and could be broken.“As an independent fire company you can contract with any municipality,” said Jonathan J. Schell, a town resident, noting he was not advocating for merging. “It would be a win-win situation since the equipment is here.”Mr. Craig said the fire company had approached Great Bend and Copenhagen fire departments but it was while the company was in litigation so nothing was agreed upon. “If we form a district then we can look into contracting,” Mr. Craig said.Upon leaving many of those in attendance signed up to help distribute petitions.“I hope it works out,” Pleasant Lake resident Daniel L. Mosher said. “I’m concerned about having someone close by.”
Source: Watertown Daily Times Latest News
Champion Fire Company seeking to form fire district

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