At midnight March 14, the Fonda Fire Department will close its doors, ending 139 years of service.
“We sort of knew it was coming,” said Fire Chief Donald Wagoner. “We’re still not happy about it.”
Consolidation talks between village Mayor Bill Peeler and the town of Mohawk Fire District have been going on for months now. At Monday night’s Village Board meeting, a contract with the neighboring fire district was approved by a 4-1 vote, dissolving the Fonda Fire Department.
Peeler said the move will save the village somewhere in the range of $22,000 per year initially. Currently the department costs village taxpayers about $43,000 a year, while Mohawk’s fire protection will cost only $21,000 a year for the next two years.
Local firefighters and a number of residents vocally defended the village fire service throughout the process, but to Peeler, finances outweighed their protests. Even so, it was a hard choice.
“I was surprised by the grief I felt this morning,” he said Tuesday. “I grew up here. My father served on the fire department. I hate that we had to do this.”
From his perspective, though, shutting down the department was a necessary evil. One of its engines is more than 20 years old, and a new one would cost more than $300,000. Plus, the cost of running a fire department is likely to go up over the years while Fonda’s ability to pay may not.
“It’s not personal,” he said. “I know that will sound hollow to the firefighters because they’ve given so much. It is personal to them.”
Wagoner was fairly calm Tuesday afternoon. Even after 20 years in the department and three years as chief, he said he understood Peeler’s side.
“He’s looking at it from a purely financial standpoint,” he said, “which I understand. Fire service is expensive.”
His main worry with the shift is also financial. During the period covered by the short-term contract signed Monday night, the village will negotiate permanent entry into the Mohawk Fire District. While their rates are secured for two years, once Fonda is officially part of the district, village taxpayers will have to pay an extra fire tax.
“That’s exactly what Peeler didn’t want to do,” Wagoner said.
Peeler said the tax won’t be too high, but Wagoner worries it will cost more than just keeping the Fonda fire station operational.
The village already has plans for the newly saved cash. Peeler said the storm drainage system needs work, along with other sections of deteriorating infrastructure. For such a controversial decision, he admitted the fire savings are only “a drop in the bucket” and any real improvements will cost much more than $22,000 a year.
“It’s just one way we’re looking to save money,” he said, noting that talk in the future may turn to dissolving the village itself.
As for the Fonda Fire Department’s last few weeks, Wagoner said it will be business as usual.
“Whenever one of our firefighters passes away, even the retired ones, we blow our siren one last time. One last hurrah,” he said. “Our siren has been broken for a year, but maybe on March 14, we’ll have the whole crew down at the station for a last hurrah.”