CHAMPLAIN — The Village of Champlain and its Fire Department have vowed to part.
The split will be an amicable one. With its small tax base, the village can't meet the needs of the department as well as it should anymore.
But a fire company needs to be governed; so far, no one's sure how that'll be done.
The Village Board hired an attorney to look into the options, but it can also gain insight from other communities that deal with fire and rescue issues.
Fire companies are governed one of three ways deemed legal by the state of New York:
Villages and cities can own municipal fire departments.
Fire districts are run by their own board of commissioners, formulating their own budgets, then levying taxes to raise those funds.
Fire-protection districts are incorporated, run by a board of directors. They contract with municipalities for services.
"There are pros and cons to each structure," said James King, director of Clinton County Emergency Services.
In Clinton County, most fire companies are fire districts, while fire-protection districts have proven more popular in Franklin County.
Clinton County has just three municipally run volunteer systems, all in villages: the Champlain, Rouses Point and Dannemora fire departments.
"We looked into fire districts a couple years ago," said Philip Maynard Jr., mayor of the Village of Dannemora. "The trustees and I decided that in our area it wouldn't be in our best interest."
The Dannemora Fire Department has an average annual budget of between $55,000 and $60,000, some raised by village taxes and some through fire-protection contracts with the towns of Saranac and Dannemora.
The cost to those towns is based on a formula that, Maynard said, "makes it equitable for both the village taxpayer as well as the users within the contract districts."
Last year, the village allocated $5,000 of its Fire Department budget to the department's equipment reserve fund, then kicked in another $10,000 from its general-fund surplus.
By investing those savings in certificates of deposit, the village earned interest on the money, too. "That's a nice downpayment on a $100,000 ambulance," the mayor said.
A stable tax base and, Maynard said, "a big effort in planning and creative financing at some junctures" keeps the Village Fire Department up-to-date. Of its five trucks, all are new or just a few years old. All but the pumper are paid for in full.
Maynard likes the idea of the village governing the Fire Department.
"As far as I'm concerned, with a fire district, the checks-and-balances system wouldn't be there (because it's run by its own commissioners)."
But the Village of Champlain doesn't have funds to supplement the Fire Department. Its needs vie with others, such as rebuilding badly weather-beaten Prospect Street.
"I understand their plight," said Steve Cayea, Mooers fire chief.
The Mooers Fire Department was compelled to change designations back in 1995.
The Village of Mooers was due to dissolve, leaving the department without a governing body.
Now it's a fire-protection district that contracts with the Town of Mooers for the majority of its funding.
Though village rule was fine, Cayea said, the department gained some advantages with the more direct connection with the town.
"The burden is spread over a larger area now," he said. "When you're looking at 300 people (the former village's population), that's not a very big tax base."
The department's been able to upgrade gear and breathing apparatus a bit sooner, Cayea said.
The village gave the fire station to the town — now there's an expansion project under way that includes a new bay for the ambulance.
Town Supervisor Jack Dragoon said the biggest advantage has been to village taxpayers, who saved more than $1 per $1,000 assessed value in taxes for fire protection.
Dragoon didn't favor creation of a fire district because "my feeling was the more people you have involved, sometimes the more headaches you've got.
"If you've got good commissioners," he said, "you're probably OK. You get some that get carried away, sometimes it's more costly."
In Keeseville, however, it appears dissolving the Village Fire Department in favor of a fire district worked well.
Like Champlain, that village couldn't give the Fire Department all it required to keep up with the times.
"We couldn't make long-range plans. There wasn't the money to plan ahead," said Leon "Butch" Clodgo.
Clodgo was a village trustee in 1991, when the Keeseville-AuSable-Chesterfield Fire District was formed from the Village Fire Department and parts of the towns of AuSable and Chesterfield.
Formerly, those towns had contracted for protection with the Village Fire Department. Now, Clodgo chairs the district's Board of Fire Commissioners.
When the village ran the department, he said, villagers paid a heavy tax to support the $75,000 budget.
Though the two towns paid the same share of that budget, the assessed value of Chesterfield properties was far higher than that of AuSable. So, when the cost was spread among the residents, those in Chesterfield were paying far less.
Now the rate's the same across the board. "It made it equal for everybody," Clodgo said.
The tax rate doubled the in 1992 to allow the new district to sock away savings, he continued. "But it has held the line since then."
Now, the budget is $255,000. The tax rate is a little more than $1 per $1,000 assessed value. That's about $60 a year for a home assessed at $60,000. And it's in line with cost of fire and rescue service throughout the Northern Tier.
"We've been able to buy a major piece of equipment almost every year and pay cash for it," Clodgo said. "We just ordered a new ambulance, and we have cash to pay for that.
"And now we're putting money into the (fire station), too, which hadn't been getting much attention."
The district only borrowed for its new $215,000 pumper. It's paying the $160,000 loan off over five years.
Clodgo's a strong proponent of the fire-district system.
"When you're a department of a city or village, you're just one of the departments. You have to compete with other department heads that have needs, too."
He knows some people are concerned that fire commissions can lack perspective — that members tend to be firefighters themselves.
"We have very competitive elections," he said.
This year, the Fire Commission is made up of two firefighters and three members who are not otherwise involved with the Fire District.
One of those, Clodgo added, brings expertise with heavy equipment and vehicles to the board.
Almost 100 voters turned out for the last election, which included two propositions — one for a new ambulance and another for purchase of a used firetruck.
Both passed overwhelmingly, with just two no votes on the first and three on the second.
The bottom line, Clodgo said, is that the people "are still getting the same service they got before from the village."
Volunteers for the Champlain Fire Department — their organization is called Niagara Hose Company — promise the same.
They're strongly in favor of forming a fire district involving the Village of Champlain and the portion of the Town of Champlain that excludes the Village of Rouses Point.
The Champlain Town Board addressed the financial issue by upping its contribution for fire protection by nearly $15,000 for 1999.
But that agreement is just for the coming year — the Village of Champlain drew the line there, determined to relinquish control of the department with the aim of getting it back on its feet.
Mayor Melissa McManus expects a report, within a few weeks, from the attorney on the options for doing that. Then, it's back to the drawing board with the Town of Champlain.
Meanwhile, McManus said, "we carry on. Absolutely."