Schenectady’s fire chief might have to move, according to an opinion by the state Attorney General’s Office.
An opinion from that office said that firefighters are misreading the state law that exempts them from city residency requirements. They don’t have to live in the city, but they must live within the county, according to the opinion.
Chief Michael Della Rocco lives in Albany County. It’s not far away — just over the border from Rotterdam. And under his reading of state law, he can live there because Albany County is contiguous to Schenectady County.
To read the complete opinion from the state Attorney General's Office, click HERE.
Several other firefighters also live outside the county, citing the same reading of the state law. They believe it allows them to live in any county contiguous to the county in which they work.
But residency exemption for “contiguous counties” was only meant for New York City firefighters, Assistant Solicitor General Kathryn Sheingold wrote in an opinion requested by the city of Syracuse in 2007.
City officials wanted to know whether their firefighters had to live in the county, or could live in nearby counties.
Sheingold said they had to live in the county where they were employed. They did not have to live in the city, though.
Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy deferred comment to Corporation Counsel John Polster, who was nonplussed by the opinion.
He said Sheingold was “parsing” the law in an unlikely way.
“Boy, I would not buy that in a court at all,” he said.
But Sheingold wrote that the confusion stemmed from an error in grammar when the law was amended. The state’s residency law for public officials has been amended dozens of times, with special sections added for more than a dozen specific municipalities. Schenectady does not have its own section, so it uses the general law.
That law says that all paid firefighters can disregard city residency laws, but must live within the county.
Later, the law goes on to say that some workers in New York City can live in contiguous counties.
That’s where the grammar gets confused, Sheingold said. As more and more worker classifications were added to that section, she wrote, it became unclear that all the classifications only applied to New York City.
In that section, the law says that the county-only residency requirement does not apply to “a paid member of a paid fire department, who, for the purposes of this section shall include persons employed as fire alarm dispatchers, or … any person employed in a department of correction … or to the appointment of officers and inspectors who are employees of a department of health of any city over one million population who resides (a) in a county in which such city is located; or (b) in a county within the state contiguous to the county in which said city is located …”
Polster said his reading of the law was that all firefighters in the state could live in a contiguous county, but health inspectors could only do so if they were employed in a city with a population of more than 1 million.
Chief Della Rocco read it the same way, and he noted that many others have, too.
“It’s a recognized standard, an accepted standard,” he said.
If city officials enforce Schenectady County residency, he said few firefighters would have to move.
“I don’t think there are many,” he said. “We try to encourage people to live within the city of Schenectady.”
But he would have to move. He wasn’t thrilled by the idea.
“It’s America. People do have an expectation of personal freedom,” he said, adding that the city’s residency law has caused problems when certain employees did not have the flexibility to move.
Most recently, the city’s assessor learned that she may lose her job this fall because she is caring for her elderly father in his home in Colonie.
“People that have family care issues, or child care issues, they become more complicated” because of the residency law, Della Rocco said. “Sometimes a spouse will have a position elsewhere, or you will have personal family reasons. Those aren’t easily answered questions.”