Monday, January 31, 2011

At What Price Dissolution

"For your own good is a persuasive argument that will eventually make a man agree to his own destruction."  - Janet Frame

Last week we reported regarding the Village's apparent rejection of the more than $1.3 million SAFER grant.  This grant would have allowed the Village to rehire 6 firefighters and pay their salaries for the next 2 years.  It is our belief that the only explanation for this apparent self destructive decision is Hannon's dedication to decimating the Village Fire Department regardless of the impact on public safety.

There has been much discussion regarding the "plan" to create a fire district incorporating the Village of Johnson city, the Village of Endicott and at least some additional part of Union.  For reasons that can only be nefarious, the Village leaders are unwilling to inform us what they plan to do.  Certainly any plan would have to incorporate some portion of Endwell since fire districts must be made up of contiguous or adjoining areas.

Currently, the Village of Johnson City provides contract services to local oil companies, a local technology company, Hilltop Retirement Home, and the Fairmount Park community.  This generates revenue which offsets the cost of operating the Village fire department.  Currently, the Village of Johnson City receives over $200,000 annually  for providing fire protection to Fairmount Park residents.

Fire Starter has reliably learned that the Village of Johnson City is proposing that the Endwell Fire district cede a strip of land along the river bank to connect Johnson City and Endicott.  In return, Johnson City will attempt to give its over $200,000 contract with Fairmount Park to the Endwell Fire District. In other words, the Village of Johnson City will give up a contract service which offsets a significant percentage of the operating budget for the fire department to create a fire district and destroy the current department.  We will be giving up revenue to fulfill Hannon's vindictive dream of wrecking the fire department.  And safety will be compromised.  And once again, much like the joint fire and police chiefs,  Johnson City will be footing the bill for other communities.

There is a reason that fire districts must be comprised of adjoining areas.  This is the only way a unified fire department can provide services in a prompt and efficient manner.  Although utilizing a strip of land at the river bank to connect the communities may provide a technical way around the law, it is contrary to the spirit of the law and bad for public safety.  The two communities will be no more "connected" than they are today.  But Hannon will have his wish.  And Bertoni will be led by the nose showing himself to be Hannon's lackey.  And we will all be the losers.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

SAFER Grant Rejected?

"Don't be afraid of failure; be afraid of petty success." - Maude Adams 

Fire Starter noted an item in a recent Press & Sun Bulletin issue regarding the awarding of a FEMA grant to the Johnson City Fire Department.  The Village department was awarded a grant of $92,026 by the federal agency.  The report goes on to note that $30,100 was awarded to modify facilities, $20,983 for equipment and $45,787 for protective equipment.  Putting aside the fact that these specific grants add up to $96,870 (and not $92,026) it is great that the Village taxpayers are able to see some of their federal tax dollars returned to their community.

What is of great concern is the lack of coverage of the Villages failure to claim over $1.3 million in federal money awarded through the SAFER grant program.  The SAFER grant program was created to provide funding directly to fire departments to help increase the number of trained, front line firefighters in a community.  More specifically, the goal is to enhance a department's ability to comply with OSHA and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards for proper fire department staffing.  The program materials note "Ultimately, a faster, safer, and more efficient incident scene will be established and communities will have more adequate protection from fire and fire-related hazards".

So we accept $90,000 from the federal government for "stuff" but we will not accept grants to put more fire fighters between us and disaster.  Fire stations, and equipment do not fight fires and save lives.  Brave men and women do.

As you will all recall, nearly two years ago, Dennis Hannon, Rick Balles and Monica Silas all supported the laying off of six Johnson City fire fighters.  The issue of the layoff was controversial and led to legal struggles which appear to continue to date.  If press accounts are to be believed, if the fire fighters union is successful in their challenge, the Village will owe hundreds of thousands of dollars in retroactive pay to the laid off fire fighters.

In the meantime, the Village has failed to claim this federal grant which would have fully funded the six fire fighter positions for two years.  At the very least, bringing the fire fighters back to work would have stopped the ever growing tab owed by the Village to the laid off fire fighters.  And according to SAFER program documentation, there are no "strings attached" other than maintaining the size of the department plus the new hires (or re-hires)  for the period of the grant.

This appears to be a classic case of cutting off one's nose to spite one's face.  If Mayor Hannon was truly interested in protecting Village residents, this grant would have been accepted.  It would have provided more protection to Village residents and a safer work environment for village fire fighters --and at no cost to village residents.  Instead, Hannon is rejecting the more than $1.3 million grant since accepting it would insure the continuation of the quality fire service we have come to expect. 

It becomes ever clearer that Hannon is bent on wrecking the Village fire department.  The why is known only to Hannon.  However, one can not discount ego.  If he succeeds, it will be clear to all that he is the "boss". 

But where will this leave Village residents?  And at what price, Hannon's ego?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Recent History

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." - George Santayana

The Fire Starter was recently in the public library reading the Press & Sun Bulletin in an attempt to get a better grip on the Village's situation.  It was really quite an education.  Our paper of record had extensive writings on the subject that were extremely informative.

We found a story in which the reduction in fire department manning was discussed.  The mayor claimed that the Village could not afford the fire department.  The Mayor argued that occasional or permanent closures of a fire station may be required.  Although we had not recalled this, the fire chief made grave predictions about the cost in safety to citizens and fire fighters noting "the fewer men you have, the more injuries you're going to suffer.  The number six is not a safe number".  We were struck by what a "stand up guy" the chief is.

We also found angry letters to the editor from residents concerned with the decreased protection.  One in particular charged that the mayor is "more worried about overtime expense than the safety of village homes and lives."  We could not agree more.  Others charged that "if you give up on services you're going to lose all of your people".  The Mayor responded that "the trustees are faced, in my opinion, with tax increases that will lead to a dissolution of the village".

We found numerous articles in which local fire officials were critical of any attempt to go to a mixed paid and volunteer department.  The obvious increase in burden on surrounding paid and volunteer departments was repeatedly sited.  Also noted were decreased response times and effectiveness.

We found an editorial which noted that the Mayor's "supporters will no doubt claim that he improved things in the village while detractors will insist he has made a mess.  Both sides will agree that his term brought tumult, turmoil and a near-total lack of civility to village government".   The mayor's term will go down as "one of the most contentious -- and expensive -- terms in village history."

Everything seemed to meet with our recollection of the last 18 months.  All except the "stand up guy" as fire chief.  We did not recall Hrustich being a "stand up guy" at all.  In fact quite the opposite -- all Hrustich has done is promote himself and his bank account while placing residents and fire fighters at risk.

Suddenly we noticed that we were in the archive section of the library and the newspapers were from 2002 and 2003.  The fire chief concerned for the safety of fire fighters and residents was Stephen Andrew of the Endicott fire department.  And the shortsighted and vindictive mayor was not Dennis Hannon but Michael Colella. 

Fire starter was struck by the fact that Hannon has been singing from Colella's hymn book.  The rhetoric and the scare tactics are the same.  The Hobson's choice remains the same -- slash the fire department and safety or all will be lost.  The petty demonization of village employees.  The only new twist is Hannon's abuse of disciplinary charges to persecute his enemies.  This was apparently a trick Hannon learned as police chief.

The end of the Colella story is as instructive today as it was seven years ago.  Colella's destructive policies and personal bullying left him the disgraced former mayor of Endicott.  True leaders led the Village of Endicott out of the mess Colella created.  The fire department was saved and the public protected.  Colella was relegated to the dustbin of history.

Now Hannon and Bertoni have gone down the same road previously trod by Colella.  Could their political demise be far behind?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Sheriff's Latest "Investigation"

"The time is always right to do what is right." - Martin Luther King, Jr.

Well, Mayor Dennis Hannon was quiet for a few days but apparently could not bear being out of the media for more than a week.  Yesterday's Press & Sun Bulletin again carried a story featuring our hero, Dennis Hannon, uncovering wrongdoing in the Village of Johnson City.  In this episode, he is leading an investigation into equipment tampering within the fire department.  The article is not clear exactly what was tampered with our how but it may have had something to do with breathing equipment.

Fire Starter's intial observation regarding this story is...where is the story.  The Press & Sun Bulletin seems to have successfully filled several columns in it's pamphlet thin publication but it is nearly impossible to discern what the "news" is.  There was some kind of incident involving some unnamed firefighters investigated by unnamed police officers who found nothing.  This is like a Seinfeld episode..."an investigation about nothing".

Fire Starter is always struck by the leaking of these "ongoing investigations".  It has always been our understanding that "ongoing investigations" are held "close to the vest" so as not to damage any potential leads.  That is unless it is not about investigating but rather exposure for the already grossly overexposed Mayor of  Johnson City.

Fire Starter has noticed that this has given our pious pontificator Hannon the opportunity to express his grave concerns and the overpaid and under worked Joint Fire Administrator an opportunity to clarify that "tampering with life saving equipment is bad".  Fire Starter is glad we were able to get Hrustich on the record on that point.  Apparently neither Hrustich nor Hannon have any concerns about the life threatening situation they have placed Village Fire Fighters in through under staffing.

Finally, if the Union lawyer is right, this has been the most pathetic and disingenuous investigation yet.  If fire fighters lives have been placed in danger, why have only three victims been interviewed?  Why not interview all of the firefighters, civilian employees, the politicians and anyone else with access to the fire department?  It's as if there was a bank robbery and only the teller who took the "hold up note" was interviewed.

Fire Starter is not blaming the police department for any shortcomings in this "investigation".  This is clearly coming from the top.  And Hannon is only interested in headlines, not answers.  It is time for Hannon to stop his petty attacks and headline grabs and "do what is right".  Unfortunately, this does not seem to be within him.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Corruption Continues

“It is said that power corrupts, but actually it's more true that power attracts the corruptible". - David Brin

Mayor Hannon of Johnson City has been systematically dismantling the Fire Department and the Police Department ostensibly in the name of economy.  As we have repeatedly pointed out, the cost savings are minimal and the cost to safety are substantial.  We have repeatedly argued that his actions reflect a deeper animus toward the fire department and the real losers have been Village residents. What Fire Starter did not realize was that there have been financial winners within Village government. 

For example, you may recall that Rachelle Gallagher, the Chief Clerk of the Village Court, has done some dirty work for Mayor Hannon.  She utilized court resources to do a background search on a village maintenance man that Hannon wanted to get rid of.  She passed this ill-gotten information to her husband, Scott Gallagher, who is an assignments editor at WBNG and also on the Village payroll as recreation director.  He then tried to use this information and his position at WBNG to smear the maintenance man.

Well apparently doing Hannon's dirty work has its rewards.  And Village residents are paying for them.  While Hannon is laying off fire fighters and not replacing police officers, Rachelle Gallagher has received substantial pay increases.  According to Press Connects data, between 2008 and 2009, Rachelle Gallagher's pay has increased by 27%.  In 2008, Gallagher made $28,652.  In one year, her pay jumped to $36,447.  During this same time frame, civil service employees in similar positions of responsibility received pay raises of approximately 3%.  Is it any wonder that Mayor Hannon receives such unerring positive coverage from WBNG.  It's the best coverage your taxpayer money can buy.

Fire Starter also noted that another Hannon appointee received a substantial pay increase.  The Deputy Village Clerk, Cindy Kennerup,  has also enjoyed a substantial windfall from "his honor".  Between 2007 and 2009, Kennerup's pay has increased 25% with no change in title or increase in responsibility.  What additional "services"  Kennerup is providing is not immediately clear, but it must be something "special".

Again, it must be kept in mind that during this time frame, Hannon has been slashing public safety while rewarding cronies.  It is clear that it is not about cost savings.  It is about punishing enemies and rewarding friends.  And all at your expense.

Stop the corruption.  Speak out.  It is not too late to send the cronies packing and insist on the services you are paying for.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Insurance Costs to Skyrocket

“Lying is done with words and also with silence.” - Adrienne Rich

The Fire Starter has begun to present questions and answers regarding the cost of any plan to create a fire district which encompasses Johnson City, Endicott and parts of the town of Union.  The better armed we are as citizens, the better able we are to cut through the cloud of lies and half truths being perpetuated by certain dissolutionists and Village Board members.

One issue which may escape notice from many is the cost of homeowners insurance.  One of the major factors in the price of home owner's insurance is the nature and quality of fire service in the community.  Most insurance companies utilize rating information provided by Insurance Service Organization (ISO).  ISO is a a resource to insurance companies that evaluates all aspects of the quality of fire service in a given community.  ISO ranks fire protection on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being the best and 10 being no fire protection.

ISO bases its evaluation of Fire Departments upon the number of personnel on duty, training level of personnel (paid or volunteer), the availability of appropriate equipment and the availability of water both through hydrants and pumper trucks.  By evaluating these factors, insurance companies have quantitative analysis of the likely severity of fire damage should a fire occur.   In other words, even a slow response from a  volunteer department may protect neighboring houses, but will likely result in a total loss for the owners of the home needing the initial response.  A quick response from highly trained paid fire fighters will result in less damage to the structure and reduce the cost of repair.

As the Villages consider creating either a volunteer department or a combination paid and volunteer department, it is important to know what effect this will have of the resulting department's ISO rating.  A lowered ISO rating translates into an increase in homeowners insurance premiums.  Several studies by other communities have shown that a drop in ISO rating of just two levels will result in the average home owner's premium increasing by over $105.00 year.  This should be startling information.  As we pointed out last week, true anticipated savings from totally eliminating the paid department were 82.12 for the average homeowner.  For a combination department, the "savings" would be significantly less.

As we have pointed out previously, there are significant life and death costs in either eliminating paid fire service or crating a "combination" department.  But when the elimination of the paid department merely transfers the cost from your tax bill to your insurance bill, why would we want to take this risk?

And if there are no true savings and a clear loss of service, why is Hannon advocating the change?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Dollars and Safety

“One of the true tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes an emergency.” -
Arnold H. Glasgow

In our last post, we urged a call to arms regarding the piecemeal dismantling of our Village.  We urged voters to arm themselves with questions and insist on answers.  We also urged voters to seek information and arm themselves with facts.

The elimination of the fire department has been rationalized on the basis that the Village can no longer afford a paid department.  Hannon and others have advocated for a volunteer department or a combination volunteer/paid department.  When one examines the relative savings, it is clear that they are few.  And when one examines the cost in terms of life and property, they are clearly too high.

Initially, we would urge you to look closely at your tax bill.  Is it village taxes that are taking the biggest "bite" out of you or school taxes?  Although town of union taxes are modest for Village residents, they would certainly soar with any sort of combined department.  At the very least, there would be a new layer of taxation from a fire district.

In the Town of Union, the average cost for a volunteer fire department is $32.83 per thousand of assessed value.  Currently, Johnson City's fully paid and quick responding department costs Village residents $53.36 per thousand of assessed value.  If the Village were to go to a totally volunteer department, the cost savings would be $20.53 per thousand of assessed value.  This translates into an average savings of 82.12 per year or 22 cents per day for the average Village resident.  If the Village were to go to a combination volunteer/paid department, the savings would be even less.

And what would you be giving up?  It seems likely that EMS service would go by the wayside since this accounts for a large percentage of calls answered by the fire department.  The department would likely no longer have the manpower to respond to EMS calls.  You will be at the mercy of the already overtaxed UVES.

Effective response time would also be greatly hindered.  In a volunteer department, you would be waiting for responders to report to the fire station and then respond to your emergency.  And that's assuming anyone responds to the call.  And when they arrive on the scene, will they have sufficient manpower to "knock down" the fire or will they simply keep it from spreading to your neighbor's home and preserve your foundation for the rebuild?   In a combination department, the paid fire fighters may arrive quickly, but will they have the manpower to effectively fight the fire or are they relegated to waiting for volunteers to arrive?

Simple minds may relish in simplistic solutions.  But even the most cursory consideration of the changes being discussed raise serious financial and safety questions.  And it is up to us to ask the questions and insist on answers.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Call to Arms

"A little knowledge that acts is worth infinitely more than much knowledge that is idle." - Kahlil Gibran

Last week Fire Starter highlighted the bad and the good in Johnson City politics.  We contrasted negativity with optimism.  We presented two visions of the Village.  Now it is time for action.

Johnson City Mayor Hannon and Endicott Mayor Bertoni have begun to tout their "plan" for consolidation of fire service.  Despite the fact that no "plan" has been presented to the public, Hannon has assured us that it can be implemented in 2-3 months.  To paraphrase former Speaker of the House Pelosi, I guess they will "have to implement it for us to find out what is in it".

As we have previously pointed out, prior efforts by Hannon at consolidation have been an unmitigated disaster.  We are paying more for less service.  We are paying more for part time police and fire chiefs than we did for full time.  We are sending our detectives out of the Village and using Village resources to supplement Binghamton's police force at the expense of Village residents.  What these prior efforts at consolidation have in common is that they were touted as yielding savings with no proof or study.  They were implemented without public input and without a "plan".  And all the while, Hannon, Balles and Davis "whistle past the graveyard" in the hopes that their reckless decisions do not cost lives.

Which brings us to the consolidation of fire service "plan".  There are many questions which need to be answered by Village officials.  And this sort of change can not be rushed through to hide the real costs and impact.  Hannon's "bully tactics" can not be allowed to cloud the issues for both Villages.  As taxpayers, we are entitled to answers. 

For example, does the "plan"  involve a greatly reduced department for both Villages or a combination paid and volunteer department?  What will that do to EMS and response times? Will it take into account the vast geography to be covered by this department?  Who are the "experts" that are evaluating these life and death decisions.  Single minded dissolutionists like Bill Klish? And do the respective Village Boards have answers to these basic questions or will such impudent queries be brushed aside as the fear mongering of a few?

Over the next few weeks, Fire Starter will provide residents with questions and information to take to Village Board meetings.  We can provide statistics and perspective but we can not speak for you.  Only you can make your voice heard.  Village residents will need to arm themselves with questions and information. They must doggedly demand that their questions be answered.

 We have pointed out in the past that it is much easier to tear down than build up.  Once the Villages are destroyed, there will be no rebuilding them.  The time to act is now.