Colella, Endicott, NY Firefighters at Odds over Volunteers

ENDICOTT -- Mayor Michael E. Colella plans to suggest a change in the Endicott Fire Department that he says could save taxpayers as much as $1.6 million in 2003-04.

But the firefighters' union opposes the idea, saying it could force the village to close a fire station and put residents' lives at risk.

Colella would allow volunteers to join the fire department, which is currently an all-paid squad. That would enable the village to eliminate up to 20 full-time firefighters from the 40-member department, he said.

"The village is either going to streamline its operations or go bankrupt or dissolve," he said.

The mayor said the village faces a $2 million budget shortfall as it begins to prepare the next fiscal year's budget, due by June 1.

The firefighters' union sounded an alarm about the idea in fliers distributed to village homes over the weekend and Monday. The union said cutting the department could ignite a "potentially devastating" crisis.

Village residents would probably lose many services, including the "absolute likelihood" of closing the North Side Fire Station on Odell Avenue, the union said.

"It's about saving jobs, but it's about saving jobs for community safety," said Joseph Ranucci, local president of the New York State Professional Fire Fighters Association.

"The people have a right to know what's going on," he said. "Any cuts to the department could jeopardize safety."

Trustee Bernie Becker said he hasn't seen the mayor's proposal, but the idea must be discussed thoroughly before positions are cut.

"There's a lot involved here. People need to know what's going on," he said. "This is a big, involved procedure before we go and lay off 20 firefighters."

Several state firefighting officials agreed with Ranucci.

"When things go boom in the night, the first thing people do is run to the phone and ask for the fire department," said Charles Morello, president of the Albany-based state firefighters union.

During the critical minutes after an alarm, full-time crews can rush to their trucks and hit the road faster than volunteer departments, another state official said.

"When the bell hits and a response is needed immediately, it's not something you want to wait for," said Michael McManus, state union secretary-treasurer.

Colella, however, disputed the warnings as false alarms. Volunteers and professionals together could protect the village's 13,000 residents as well as an all-paid department could. He pointed to the towns of Vestal and Union, which have volunteer squads with adequate response times and protection.

"To go around and tell people this is unsafe is an insult to the volunteer firemen around us," Colella said.

The mayor said data from similar-sized New York municipalities show around-the-clock protection can be provided for significantly less than Endicott's proposed $3.4 million fire department budget for 2003-04.

The village's current general fund budget, which expires May 31, is $10.7 million, with $2.9 million allocated to the fire department.

Colella said Corning, population 10,842, runs its 28-member paid department on $1.9 million. He said 19 paid firefighters in Norwich, population 7,355, work with $1.07 million annually. Norwich augments its fire coverage, including areas outside the city, with 100 volunteers, Colella said.

If Endicott doesn't cut spending in the fire department and elsewhere, Colella warned of a possible $75 property tax increase for each $1,000 of assessed value to close the anticipated revenue shortfall.