March 30, 2007

Career, volunteer firefighters plan to negotiate state money


Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Cortland firefighter Duane Pierce washes one of the department’s trucks outside the main station on Court Street Thursday afternoon.

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — Closed-door negotiations over a lawsuit between the city’s paid and volunteer firefighters were canceled due to scheduling conflicts.
The meeting, which was planned for today, was scheduled with the hopes of resolving a dispute over the distribution of money delegated from the state to the two groups annually.
“Both sides remain hopeful that we will come to an agreement,” Brad Pinsky, of Scicchitano & Pinsky law firm, who represents the volunteer staff, said in mid-March.
As of Thursday evening the meeting had not been rescheduled.
The lawsuit that was filed in December is over a disagreement between the two parties about annual money given to the volunteers’ treasure from the Foreign Fire Tax program, or “2 percent money,” as it is commonly called.
The law then requires the treasurer to distribute that money to both the volunteer and the paid firefighters.
The annual allocation has ranged between $29,819 and $42,728 over the past six years, and was $39,807 in 2006. It currently is broken up at 75 percent to 25 percent ratio in favor of the volunteers.
The paid firefighter’s lawsuit contends the ratio should be amended, based upon the number of active volunteers and the number of current paid firefighters.
Some volunteers that are considered active either rarely attend emergencies or do not attend them at all, paid firefighters claim in the lawsuit. Moreover, some of the volunteers only attend social functions and some are even deceased, the lawsuit says.
There are 36 paid firefighters, according to Fire Chief Dennis Barron. He said he does not have an updated number for the volunteer staff but believes they range between 50 and 75 members.
According to the state Insurance Department, the program has been in place since 1849 and requires out-of-state fire insurance companies that provide insurance to New York state residents to pay a 2 percent tax on their premiums to the state. That money is then appropriated to each department based on how many residents in the department’s coverage area carry out-of-state insurance.
The fund originally was set up to provide money only to the volunteer departments, but in 1986 the state Supreme Court ruled paid firefighters are entitled to a percentage, said Mike Bridgeford, of the state Insurance Department.
That percentage was not specified in the decision.
Pinsky said the volunteers are willing to work with the paid staff to create a better definition of the title “active.” He said he intends to propose a points system under which each volunteer firefighter would be required to attend a certain number of calls and training sessions in order to be considered “active.”
“The goal of the law is to keep the money with the volunteers,” he said, adding that if an agreement cannot be reached, his clients will fight the lawsuit. “We are willing to be more strict than the law. We’re already exceeding what other departments do.”
Pinsky believes that if the suit were taken to court, a judge would find that any firefighter who goes on at least one call per year would be considered active for insurance purposes.
The law currently says that both paid and volunteer firefighters are entitled to the money when a department is made up of both groups. It says the money should be distributed on a “pro-rata basis,” according the Insurance Department.
Pinsky argued that the majority of the money should stay with the volunteers because they are not paid.
He said it works as a “thank you” for their service, allowing volunteers to conduct yearly banquets and other recruitment and retention services.
The paid firefighters have an annual city budget of $2.4 million while the volunteers have a budget of $8,500. Deputy Director of Finance Lori Crompton said she is unsure if the 2 percent money is factored into that budget.
Barron said this morning that the monies are separate and that the 2 percent money is only used for perks.
The dispute between the two groups has created some tensions, paid firefighter Donn Hewes said, adding that he believes the “overall relationship is good.”
“The 2 percent is one aspect of our relationship with the volunteers,” he said. “The career and volunteers want to work together.”
John Rice, the representative for the paid staff, said it would be improper to comment about the negotiations at this point, adding that he hopes for a resolution.
Rice said the paid staff uses its portion of the money for various things, including, cable TV, furniture and newspaper subscriptions for the fire station.
Several volunteer firefights declined to comment about the dispute.



County to draft disaster management plan

Staff Reporter

A $100,000 federal grant will help Cortland County draft a comprehensive disaster mitigation plan, and ensure that the county continues to receive federal funding to take preventive measures against major issues such as flooding.
The grant, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will go toward hiring contractors to work with the county and its municipalities to develop the plan, and is part of a new initiative on the part of FEMA to take a more proactive role in preventing disasters, according to Brenda DeRusso, assistant coordinator of fire and emergency management for the county.
“Basically FEMA looked at the number of declared disasters over the last three-year period, and they realized many communities were becoming repeat customers,” DeRusso said. “They felt it was time that all communities took a serious look at what the risks are, where the hotspots are in each community and how we can prevent them.”
Beginning in November 2006, FEMA began mandating that each municipality have a hazard mitigation plan, or at least be in the process of developing one, in order to receive funding specifically for mitigating against future damages.
“Unless a county has a plan, the only funding we’re going to get is to return things to a pre-disaster state, meaning no funding for making improvements to prevent problems,” DeRusso said.
In response to federally declared emergencies due to flooding in 2005 and 2006, Cortland County received $1.9 million in funding specifically for mitigating against future damages, DeRusso said, money that went primarily to widening culverts, improving bridges and other measures aimed at decreasing flooding.
“With the last couple of storm events we’ve seen, I think we’re really starting to see the fruits of those efforts,” said DeRusso, who noted that FEMA has calculated that for every dollar spent on mitigation, approximately $12 is spent on response and recovery. “Two weeks ago we had three calls for basement flooding, two roads closed — a year ago, with that amount of water, we would have been dealing with a lot more problems.”
DeRusso said she would be working with municipalities, the Cortland County Legislature and county agencies such as the Soil and Water Conservation District to develop the plan.
Developing the plan will take approximately two years, with quarterly benchmarks the county must meet, DeRusso said, beginning with a kickoff meeting including all involved municipalities, which will likely be held in the first three months of the process, which officially begins April 1.
“It’s more or less a master plan for how the county as a whole attempts to deal with mitigation issues,” DeRusso said. “It’s going to be a document that the whole community can refer to, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity.”
As part of the FEMA grant, Cortland County will be required to provide $25,000 in in-kind services, primarily through her own time spent on the project, and time committed by other county and municipal officials, DeRusso said.
“Without any doubt we’ll exceed that,” she said.


City police seek information on series of fights around college hill

Staff Reporter

City police continue to investigate a series of fights early Sunday that may have culminated in a riot on Clayton Avenue early that morning, and are seeking anyone with information on what might have happened.
Police said Thursday they are investigating two separate physical altercations on Sunday morning — one at Monroe Heights at 2:27 a.m., another on Water Street at 3:06 a.m. — that occurred prior to a large fight on Clayton Avenue at 3:43 a.m., which involved 30 to 40 people.
Another fight on Tompkins Street at around 12:15 a.m. Sunday is also being investigated, police said.
Police are still unsure whether all or some of the incidents are connected, and are coordinating an investigation with university police at SUNY Cortland and at Tompkins Cortland Community College, according to city police Lt. Jon Gesin.
Two people arrested Sunday evening in relation to the incident on Clayton Avenue were TC3 students, Gesin said, and police believe that other students involved may have been from TC3.
“We’re still trying to talk to people, to gather as much information as we can … some things might seem trivial, but you don’t know what detail might help,” Gesin said.
In relation to the Water Street incident, police are looking for information on a newer model, silver, four-door Ford Explorer that was occupied by three black men the night of the incident.
The Explorer pulled over on Water Street, and a fight with pedestrians ensued, Gesin said, resulting in two injuries, the most serious of which was a person who was hit in the head with a bottle, requiring staples in his head.
Police are also looking for people who were driving in a silver, four-door Grand Am with a rear spoiler that Gesin said was not apparently involved in the incident, but was traveling behind the Explorer and its occupants may have seen the fight.
In terms of a motive behind the altercations, Gesin said it was still unclear what caused the fighting.
“On Clayton Avenue at least, it seems like people got in an argument, you have alcohol involved, words are exchanged, but how it started, who knows?” Gesin said. “The problem is, people start piling out of houses and then you’ve got a real mess.”
Police will have increased patrols the next few weekends, especially in the areas where the incidents occurred, Gesin said.
Anyone with information on the assaults can contact city police at (607) 753-3001, or University Police at (607) 753-2111.