So much for the spirit of cooperation on joint ventures between the city and county of Schenectady.
The county’s financial pinch — so severe it could result in a double-digit tax hike next year — has prompted it to halve the $400,000 it was paying the city for hazmat services provided by the city’s fire department. (“Hazmat” is short for hazardous materials, as in what gets released during a chemical fire or spill.) The department’s hazmat team, whose members double as firefighters, is the only one in the county: There aren’t enough hazmat calls in a given year to justify training and equipping another. And most fire departments outside the city are staffed by volunteers, who are tough enough to recruit these days without making added demands on their time.
Fire Chief Robert Farstad estimates the department’s cost of running the hazmat team as only $200,176 — almost exactly the county’s proposed new contribution — but city council Finance Committee Chairman Mark Blanchfield argues it is much higher. And he’s probably right: Farstad’s estimate doesn’t include the share of his combined personnel and equipment costs, or wear and tear, attributable to hazmat calls. While it’s true the team responds to only 75 major hazmat calls annually (out of the department’s total of roughly 15,000), many of the regular calls are less serious. And the team is 30 members strong — roughly one-fourth of the department.
Without question, it’s a valuable service — worth more than $200,000 not just to the city, but to the towns. And city residents have to pay for it twice, through their city as well as their county taxes, so it’s not unreasonable to expect the county to pay a larger share.
Blanchfield’s suggestion at a meeting last week, that the towns develop their own hazmat teams, isn’t practical for the reasons listed above. What would make sense, assuming the county won’t relent and restore the money, is for the city to determine the service’s true cost, and develop a system for assessing the towns individually to cover it. If they balk, then the city should balk at continuing to provide the service — for them, not for its own residents.