Voluntary fire membership dues will soon be going up to customers who wish to have fire protection memberships in Albany and Clinton County.
Albany City Council, at its May meeting last Tuesday, May 3, unanimously opted to increase membership fees for those who pay on their monthly water bills and also increase the cost to those billed for fire runs that are non-members.
The monthly fee, currently set at $1 per month, will increase by an additional $3 per month, making the monthly rate for paid fire memberships $4 per month when the change takes effect. The fee changes are set to begin with the July round of billing for water and sewer.
The city and fire department officials cited the rising costs of equipment and maintenance on vehicles, not to mention the fact that some of the current equipment has to be replaced by October to stay in compliance, as the need for added revenue for the volunteer fire department.
Albany Fire Chief Robert Roeper wrote a letter addressed to Albany Mayor Nicky Smith and all city council members, addressing and thanking them for getting funding for the new fire station, as well as detailing and backgrounding the need for added revenues for new equipment and more funding for maintenance on current equipment and vehicles. (A copy of that letter in its entirety can be found at the conclusion of this article.)
When the issue first came up on the council meeting agenda, Mayor Nicky Smith noted that fire memberships, as a way to help raise annual revenue for the department, first began in the 1980s.
The majority of the revenue comes in the form of a $1 monthly fee on each customers’ water bills.
The mayor recommended raising the rate for non-members who receive service from the fire department from the current $300 to $750 that would be charged to them if the department responds to their home or property and they are not current members.
The change in non-member fire fees are also set to take effect July 1.
“This doesn’t have anything to do with the new fire station or fire department grant,” the mayor stressed, but simply to maintain and purchase required equipment.”
Mayor Smith said the new fire station to be constructed near the current EMS facility and Wellness Center is being paid for from a half-million grant and $100,000 in city funds that had already been set aside in the past to complete that particular project.
The mayor and council also stressed that fire membership is totally voluntary and any resident has the option to “opt out” if they so choose.
However, anyone not on city water but would like fire protection through a fire membership can go to the water department and pay the annual fee at any time and receive fire protection under that one time per year $48 rate.
Anyone who does not want a fire membership can simply come in to city hall or the water department and sign a waiver opting out and there will be no charge on a customer’s monthly bill. However, if the fire department has to respond to a non-member call, that resident would be charged $750 for the run.
Councilman Tony Delk said, “as a council, we have to provide equipment for people (firemen) who get up in the middle of the night and at times put their lives on the line,” adding it’s something most people wouldn’t do.
Fire chief Robert Roeper also informed the council that as of this October, most of the equipment the department currently has will become outdated, but most importantly, non-compliant with state and federal regulations.
Councilman Leland Hicks also noted that whatever the new rates would be, the fire department would need a list of residents who are “non-members,” or those who opt out of paying the monthly fee, so they can be charged if the fire department has to respond.
Following a brief discussion on the issue, Councilman Steve Lawson made a motion, seconded by Hicks, to set the monthly fire membership fee at $4 per month, or $48 annually. The motion passed unanimously.
Residents who wish to become or retain fire memberships also have the option of paying the $4 per month along with their water bills, or they can come by city hall or the water department and pay a one-time annual fee of $48 once per year for membership. And again, anyone who wishes not to be a member can go by and sign a waiver to have the fee deleted from their monthly water bills.
The following is the detailed letter written to the mayor and council by fire chief Roeper last week:
“First of all, I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who was involved with helping to obtain the grant for our new fire station. I would also like to thank everyone for all of the insight that has been provided in the decision for the location to build the new fire station. I would like to say a special thank you to Mayor Nicky Smith, City Council members, and to the citizens of Albany. We trust that the location of the new station which is decided on will be the best location for the citizens, as well as the firefighters, and we look forward to its completion. I have several points that I would like to address regarding the future of our fire department.
1. The planning and set up of the new fire station will be a great undertaking for all involved. I would like to request a panel of possibly two councilmen, two firemen, the mayor, and myself. These would be the ones making any decisions pertaining to the building of the new station to ensure that it will continue to serve our community for a very long time.
2. We have applied for grants in the previous years to replace our old turnout gear and the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) through the Assistance to Firefighters’ Grants, but have been denied for the previous four years. All of our personal protective equipment has a recommended “useful life” and we are exceeding that life of these items. The turnout gear is getting extremely worn and will not be safe for the firemen entering the fires. All but three sets of turn-out gear will be out of compliance as of October of this year. The last eight SCBAs we purchased will be out of compliance in the near future. The pass devices that let us know when a firemen is down and needing help have not worked for several years now, which subject our firemen to life threatening safety concerns. Not having the turnout gear and SCBAs in compliance will put me, the entire fire department, and the city in violation of state and federal regulations.
3. Our Class A Pumper (Engine 1) is requiring work to the transmission, and it will cost $4,500 plus the labor to exchange it for a rebuilt transmission.
4. The cost of repairs is increasing each year on all of the fire trucks. The firemen are not only putting in their time for fire runs, but also are doing most of the repairs on the trucks that can be done safely. The repairs that we are unable to perform are then sent out to certified mechanics.
5. The Albany Fire Department made 352 runs last year (2012) and approximately 87 percent were made in the county, with the remaining 13 percent made in the city. We (the city) pay the county for dispatching us to fire runs, both in the city and county. The city residents pay a city tax which supports the fire department to fight fires county-wide. I do not feel that this is fair to the city taxpayers and I would not think that the citizens of Albany would feel any differently.
6. The grant money for the new fire station is $500,000, which we are very thankful for receiving. It will require another $100,000 for the completion, which the city already has. New turnout gear cost approximately $2,300 per fireman. With 25 fireman, the total cost would be $57,500. The SCBAs cost approximately $5,500 each, so that would total another $93,500 this year and $44,000 more in about four years when the rest of the SCBAs go out of compliance. This equipment is also a requirement for entering any structure fire, Haz-Mat scene, or to work a motor vehicle fire.
7. At one time in previous years, the fire department received the Empowerment Zone money to purchase new equipment such as Class A Pumpers, tankers, and a new Rescue Truck. That has been 17 or 18 years ago, and now all that equipment has significant “wear and tear” and needs replacing. It takes money and time to keep these trucks running and ready to respond at any time. We all need to start thinking about replacing some of this equipment in the next few years.
8. In 1993, the City Council placed a fee of $1 per month on the water bills for those residents in the county receiving city water, to assist in the cost of maintaining the fire department. That money is returned back to the county when the city pays the county to dispatch for the police department and fire department. The costs of operating the fire department and the state and federal regulations make it extremely difficult to operate and maintain within these requirements.
9. A lot of counties have a County Fire membership cost to the home and land owner ranging from $48 to an excess of $100 per year for their fire coverage, depending on the location and type of coverage offered.
I am asking that the City Council place an additional fee of $4 per month on the county water bills, and not place the total burden on the city taxpayer. If the land owner does not have city water, they could either pay the city a fire membership fee annually, or be responsible for a fire run charge to the city when we respond to their property. The amount of the fee would need to be set by the City Council.
I would like to thank you all for your time and for your consideration of the needs of the Albany Fire-Rescue Department. It is greatly appreciated by me, and by the Volunteer Firemen who risk their lives to protect our homes and properties in our city, and our county.