Fallout unfolds after N.Y. village board votes to dissolve fire department

Copenhagen residents have 30 days to collect signatures on a petition requesting a public vote on the department's closure


Julie Abbass
Watertown Daily Times

COPENHAGEN, N.Y. — Repercussions from the village board's decision to disband its fire department have begun.

In a special meeting called on Thursday, the Denmark Town Council approved a resolution to discontinue its fire protection contract with Copenhagen Volunteer Fire Department as of Oct. 22, following a public hearing on new fire contracts with yet-to-be-named nearby departments.

"They don't want to work with us," said James Henry, president of the corporate side of the fire organization and 49-year veteran of the Copenhagen Volunteer Fire Department. (Photo/Copenhagen VFD)

Following their vote approving the dissolution last week, Copenhagen board members indicated they want to dissolve the department as soon as possible so that they, too, can sign a new fire protection contract.

But they were reminded by their lawyer, Candace Randall, that residents have 30 days to collect signatures on a petition requesting a public vote on dissolving the department.

If no petition is filed with enough registered voter signatures on time, the village can immediately begin the dissolution.

Even before the village's decision was made, James Henry, president of the corporate side of the fire organization, expressed frustration with the two options available: turn over control of all assets and finances to the village or be dissolved.

"Do they want to work with us? No, they don't want to work with us," he said, noting department officials have given all of their bank account invoices and receipts since January to the clerk for scanning and taken a number of other steps recommended by the State Comptroller's Office.

"Look at those two options; they're the same thing ... we totally give up everything either way."

Henry is a 49-year veteran of the department and long-term chief financial officer for drill team funds.

While he acknowledges that the fire department is under the village's jurisdiction, he said the village has not historically been as hands-on with its administration as are other villages and towns with fire departments.

"When we were formed, we were on our own. The village said 'You take care of yourself...' That's where the difference comes (between Copenhagen and other departments)," Henry said, "Change it, sure — but you don't just come and take total control of things."

Prior to the department's regular meeting on Sept. 8, Henry noted he is "one person. It's up to the (fire department) body," to make the decision and that the reason a decision wasn't made in the fire company's board meeting before the village's first deadline for a response had expired was that "it's up to the department on what they want to do and not enough people showed up (at the board meeting) to make the decision."

At the general meeting, however, a number of members spoke out in favor of giving the village control of the finances in part because the department has been without a treasurer for more than five months. The body voted to have its lawyer send a registered letter to the village's lawyer asking for clarification about what the village believes its "job" is with regard to the department.

In an interview on Wednesday, however, Henry said the board overrode the body's decision at the suggestion of its lawyer, who advised it not to respond to the ultimatum until the village reimburses payments for bills and expenses this year. "We did a spreadsheet of the bills we've sent to them and asked them to be paid up and they were given to the clerk," Henry said, "Don't worry about what we're missing. You have the bills. Pay them."

At the beginning of the year, the village absorbed the fire department's budget like other departments' and kept contract money from towns to cover the department's budget. The village also required that all bills and invoices be sent to it directly for payment with explanations and receipts where needed, but the department has continued to pay all bills itself and ask the village for reimbursement.

Randall said there are a number of questions about the bills and receipts submitted and whether taxpayer money should be used for them instead of the corporation's funds.

Beyond finances, the village board, towns and other fire departments are concerned about the number of active personnel who are trained, certified and physically able to fight fires rather than fulfilling on-scene support roles like fire police.

"We have 41 firefighters in Castorland protecting $37 million in assessed value, we have 55 firefighters in West Carthage protecting $27 million and we have nine firefighters in Copenhagen protecting $127 million in assessed value," said Denmark Supervisor Scott Doyle at the meeting, noting it was a very difficult decision for the board to end the contract.

Henry points to the recruiting challenges facing all volunteer fire departments combined with the added burden of no longer being able to recruit through the drill team.

According to state General Municipal Law for villages, any fire department in a village must be part of that village and either the village board or a fire commission created by the village board has jurisdiction over the department and its taxpayer finances.

The exception is how the department organizes and implements the actual firefighting and training to meet state safety and training standards, which are extensive, and internal policies which cannot be at odds with village policies.

Any activities in which fire department members are covered by workers' compensation insurance require village board approval.

At the fire company's board meeting Thursday evening, Henry said a board member would go to the Lewis County Board of Elections for more information and to begin the petition process. At least two other people with ties to the department also visited the town office over starting a petition.

This article was corrected to indicate the final date Denmark will be contracted with the Copenhagen Fire Department is Oct. 22.

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(c)2022 Watertown Daily Times

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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