M-H Fire District seeks to add village

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By Joe Moskowitz
The Middletown-Hardenburgh and Margaretville fire districts, after decades of answering the same calls with the same people and the same equipment, may soon officially consolidate.
The Middletown Town Board agreed to schedule a public hearing on September 11 to discuss the merger. The meeting will be a major step toward resolving an issue, which for years has had only one opponent.

If approved, the merger would change where Margaretville residents pay their fire district taxes. In the past, their fire tax levy has appeared on their village tax bill. If the merger passes, Margaretville village residents would see their fire tax levy on their town and county tax bill in January. The merger would allow Margaretville residents to vote for Middletown Hardenburgh Fire District (MHFD) Commissioners and village residents could run for a seat as a fire commissioner.

By the numbers
Currently, the village has a contract with MHFD and pays approximately $52,000 a year for fire protection. If the consolidation is approved, village residents would be taxed $57,000 by the town for fire protection, but the town would pay about $5,000 less.

Dave Budin, who is both a village trustee and vice president of the Margaretville Fire Department, says since the City of New York pays about 60 percent of the village taxes, the City would have to pay $3,000 of the village’s increase in cost.

However, village trustee Fred Miller, who has opposed the consolidation since 2001, sent a letter to the Middletown Board contending that if the Margaretville services are no longer provided on a contract basis, the MHFD could be allowed to increase its tax bill to town and village residents by as much as $90,000 a year.

Higher tax prediction
In his letter, Miller writes, “My research shows that the consolidation would not produce any significant short-term savings but could lead to significantly higher taxes in the long run. This increase is due to the fact that fire districts have a legal limit to their budgets of essentially on dollar per thousand of true value assessment; this consolidation would increase the MHFD’s limit by approximately $90,000.

Additionally, Miller pointed out that the MHFD budget has increased from $177,000 in 1997 to its current $318,000 of which $232,000 is paid by Middletown, $29,000 by Hardenburgh, nearly $5,000 by Roxbury with Margaretville residents paying the $52,000 remainder. Budin said fire commissioners would never tax the maximum amount because if they did, “they wouldn’t be commissioners very long.”

Little expense
Miller went on to say that it costs about $75 per year to negotiate the contract between the village and the fire district and that the minor savings does not justify permanently changing the structure and operation of local government.

Other fire department officers claim that not only are they are in favor of the consolidation but so is the village. Miller told the News on Friday that the village has not decided. Mayor Diana Cope says Miller is entitled to his opinion but that he is wrong. She says in 2010 the village voted for consolidation with Miller casting the one “No” vote. And, in a letter she sent that same day to the town board and to Middletown Supervisor, Marge Miller, Fred’s sister, Cope thanked them for scheduling a public hearing, saying, “the village board believes that consolidation may be very beneficial to our village as village taxpayers are currently funding a contract without representation.”

Town Board member Brian Sweeney apparently struck a nerve when he wanted a proposal by the Arkville Fire District to be discussed during the upcoming hearing. Arkville currently is paid by the Middletown-Hardenburgh Fire District to provide protection for a small section along Route 28 between Floyd Finch Road where Arkville ends, and old Route 28, where Fleischmanns begins.

Arkville Fire Department Chief, Rob Sweeney, Brian’s brother, says Arkville wants to do the same thing that MHFD is trying to do, consolidate an area that is under contract. But during the meeting, Brian Sweeney’s suggestion brought immediate protest from the MHFD firefighters who almost in unison stated “that’s a separate issue.” Supervisor Miller says since the topic is fire protection for the town it should be discussed, but again the firefighters said, “that’s a separate issue.” Mayor Cope agrees. She says this has nothing to do with Arkville or Fleischmanns and to discuss it would will just sidetrack things and further delay the Margaretville and Middletown-Hardenburgh consolidation.

The Town of Hardenburgh has already approved the plan. The Town of Roxbury must also vote.