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Town of Porter Board at odds with Ransomville Fire District Commission

Sat, Oct 19th 2019 07:00 am

Staff Reports

As the Town of Porter continues to work on the many details of its 2020 spending plan, one hang-up involves the Ransomville Fire District Commission, which oversees operations for the Ransomville Volunteer Fire Co.

“I asked for the budget,” Porter Supervisor John “Duffy” Johnston said. He stated there was a numbers disparity in the Ransomville Fire District budget submitted to the town that has caught the attention and concern of Town Board members. “I called Rich Wade, president of the Ransomville Fire District, about their budget.”

Johnston said questions remain from an earlier town funding arrangement with the Ransomville Fire District that came the result of a fire company accident and subsequent litigation costs for Ransomville Fire.

Unlike the Youngstown Volunteer Fire Co., which is funded directly from the town and the Village of Youngstown budgets, the Ransomville Fire District oversees funding allocations from the town for the Ransomville Volunteer Fire Co., and submits an annual budget to the Town Board for approval.

“Twelve years ago there was an accident,” Johnston said, explaining why the Ransomville Fire District was underinsured. “The fire company didn’t have enough insurance. … The guy won a $1.1 million suit; they didn’t have the money.”

Johnston said the fire company was looking at having to divest its assets, including its firehall in the hamlet to handle the costs.

“So they came to the taxpayers, and they (the Town Board) raised the taxes. The taxes were raised by a certain percentage (back then); it’s at 2.07% right now. It’s over what we (the town) have, 1.99% (the town’s current tax rate in its budget),” Johnston said. “That brought (the Ransomville Fire District.) $110,000 per year for 10 years; (it) fulfills (the) $1.1 million cost” of the suit.

He said that, after the suit ended, there was an understanding in place between the town and Fire District that called for the tax rate percentage to return to earlier levels, and account for inflation.

That has yet to occur.

“That was two years ago,” Johnston said. “They have $220,000 somewhere that they’re banking.”

Johnston said he initially sought to meet with the Ransomville Fire District Commission to discuss the matter, but was rebuffed.

“I wanted to ask them, ‘Why are you charging the taxpayers after this agreement has been fulfilled?’ I know that you got the umbrella policy and the insurance now, but you’re still charging the Ransomville Fire District people extra money on their taxes.”

Johnston said he has also been getting questions from the Youngstown Fire Co, which asked, “Why are you giving them an extra $110,000?”

“No phone call back, nothing,” Johnston said of the Ransomville Fire District Commission’s initial response. “Next, (the) commission brings in their budget. They kept it (the $110,000 request) the same, didn’t fluctuate anything, and there’s nothing in that says what they have in their bank account.”

Johnston said he contacted the New York state comptroller’s office on the matter and it piqued their interest.

“I can’t find anything online that shows just how much money they have,” he said. “They just brought me their budget and it’s hiding how much money they got in the bank.”

“This is at the taxpayer’s expense,” Johnston said, adding that he’s awaiting more feedback from the state comptroller’s office.

Meanwhile Town Board concerns surrounding the budget continued to grow. “I’d like to find out what is going on here,” Porter Councilman Larry White said.

On Tuesday evening, Johnston, Porter Deputy Supervisor Jeff Baker, White, and town staffer Lisa Hastings visited with officials of the Ransomville Fire District’s five-member board.

Johnston questioned how the Fire District’s tax rate has remained unchanged following the suit. He also apprised Fire District members of the town’s funding disparity (adjusted for inflation) between the Ransomville and Youngstown fire companies. Telling the fire district board he has been in contact with the comptroller’s office, he requested its 2020 budget be adjusted to reflect funding difference “for the benefit of taxpayers.”

Hastings, who had earlier served as treasurer of the Fire District, called the 2020 budget “not valid” and that it reflects mistakes.

“This budget is not totaled, not balanced,” Hastings said, as she questioned the Fire District’s reserve accounts and urged its board members to “reexamine the numbers.”

Johnston said the Ransomville Fire District tax rate appears on the tax bill for Ransomville property owners.

“Who are those five people to hold the hold town hostage?” Johnston asked.

He said Ransomville’s service area doesn’t stop at the town line, but goes into Wilson, Lewiston, which also comprises the Ransomville Fire District.

Acting on the town’s comments, Ransomville Fire District members reviewed the numbers Tuesday a second time and admitted disparities.

“The officers indicated the budget will need to be amended,” said Scott Hillman, secretary for the Fire District. “The figures will need to be amended, there are items that are incorrect.”

Hillman was joined by Fire District board member Joe Pardee. He said the Fire District’s current budget “cannot be adopted without the proper numbers.”

Pardee indicated the Fire District would be consulting with its attorney on the matter.

Hillman advised board members against adopting the budget. Soon after, he presented a motion for the Fire District to “bring the budget into balance” prior to adopting it for submission to the town.

Fire District members concurred and approved for a public hearing to be held (per the advice of their attorney) at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 22, to address the matter further.

Open to the public, that session will be held at the Ransomville firehall.

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