Nick Gerace figured he’d be a shoo-in for an endorsement from the Schenectady County Independence Party.
The Niskayuna resident and prospective candidate for county Legislature was enrolled in the party and felt he gave a strong interview before its executive board in May. He even recalled some of them commenting on his strong resume, which includes being a decorated officer in the U.S. Army, serving in a combat zone and leading a logistics department with a $3 million budget.
“One of them even said I had the best resume,” he said.
But when the slate of candidates was announced a month later, Gerace’s name wasn’t among them. Instead, the Independence Party backed the entire slate of candidates already endorsed by county Democrats.
Less than a week after the endorsements were announced, the Legislature’s Democratic majority added and approved a last-minute resolution providing the Schenectady Fire Department with $550,000 in funding over 21⁄2 years. The money — including $150,000 pulled from the county’s fund balance — was earmarked for the city firefighter-staffed hazardous materials response team and provided as an financial incentive for the department to maintain a greater daily staffing level.
For Gerace, who was already endorsed by county Republicans, the timing of the funding allocation and the announcement of the Independence Party endorsements seemed like more than just a coincidence. He and others on the GOP ticket believe the so-called Fire Safety Act of 2013 was a handout by the Legislature’s Democratic majority to secure endorsements from the firefighter-dominated Independence Party in the county races.
“This was corrupt,” said Alan Boulant, a Republican running for the Legislature on a ticket with Gerace. “This was using taxpayer dollars to buy a political endorsement.”
Boulant was angered enough by what he perceived as a quid-pro-quo agreement that he filed a complaint with the Public Integrity Bureau of the state Attorney General’s Office last month, citing the county’s Democratic and Independence parties. The bureau later deemed the complaint didn’t warrant action by the attorney general, but the determination hasn’t diminished Boulant’s stance toward the Independence Party’s endorsements.
“[The Democrats] basically bought their endorsements with taxpayer dollars,” he said.
Leaders from both the county Democrats and the Independence Party stridently disagree. They claim the funding allocated for the city fire department had everything to do with ensuring public safety and was wholly unrelated to the endorsements.
“It’s kind of sour grapes on their part,” said Independence Party Chairman Richard Nebolini, a retired city firefighter. “Would they be saying these kind of things if we endorsed them? I doubt it.”
Nebolini said the executive board chose not to endorse Gerace in part because he indicated he was switching his enrollment to Republican. Also, he said the candidates endorsed for District 3 — Rory Fluman, Martin Finn and Catherine Gatta — all have experience in elected office.
“They’re candidates we were familiar with,” he said. “They’re proven leaders.”
County Attorney Chris Gardner also vehemently disputes the funding for city firefighters had anything to do with political endorsements, dismissing the complaints as partisan rhetoric. He characterized the accusation as “desperate lies” from Republican campaigns that are failing to resonate with voters in the dwindling days before the primary election this week.
“They’re not really gaining traction, and they’re just grasping at straws,” Gardner said of the Republican-endorsed candidates. “For them to attack [the funding] now is them being disingenuous and desperate.”
County officials previously contracted with the city to provide a hazardous materials team so volunteer departments wouldn’t be burdened with the cost of equipment and training.
Funding for the team was originally $400,000 before being halved in 2008 amid the county’s budget crunch.
At the time, then-Fire Chief Robert Farstad estimated the department’s cost of running the team was about $200,000. City officials argued the cost was much higher, considering the chief’s estimate didn’t include personnel and equipment costs or wear and tear on equipment attributable to hazardous materials calls.
Under the deal ratified in June, the county will provide $548 in funding to the city every time the department maintains a crew of at least 20 firefighters throughout the entire day. The department is eligible to receive an additional $200,000 per year in 2014 and 2015 provided that minimum daily staffing level is met, bringing the total amount the county spends on the city’s hazardous materials team to $300,000 this year and $400,000 annually during the remaining two years of the agreement.
The agreement also establishes a $50,000 fund to assist volunteer fire companies throughout the county. Gardner said this funding hasn’t been allocated yet and could be spread across several companies in the county.
Legislators Tom Constantine and Jeff McDonald were the only ones to vote against the allocation; Jim Buhrmaster, the Legislature’s lone Republican, was not present during the meeting. In explaining his vote last week, Constantine said he couldn’t justify the additional spending during a budget year when the Legislature blasted through the state-imposed tax cap and still required many departments to drastically cut spending.
Constantine, who voted against the Legislature’s 2013 budget because it increased taxes, said he couldn’t justify supporting a measure that boosted spending midway through the year. He also questioned the timing of the funding increase, because it didn’t seem to coincide with any jump in hazardous materials calls and city firefighters hadn’t been clamoring for a budgetary increase from the county.
“It wasn’t the right time, and there wasn’t the urgency,” he said.
Gardner said the urgency came because of an increase in arsons throughout the city.
About 30 percent of the city’s 379 fires in 2012 were set on purpose — an increase of about 5 percent over fires that were set deliberately in 2011.
With more firefighters needed to battle blazes in the city, Gardner said it became imperative to have enough manpower at the station in case a hazardous materials incident occurred at the same time as a large fire call. He said the agreement with city firefighters was rooted in both need and sound policy.
“The real issue is, do you want to have an adequate haz-mat response countywide,” he said. “Obviously, it’s a critical item.”
Of course, the county’s hazardous materials response has a built-in redundancy supported both in and outside the county. Though the hazardous materials team is the only public unit in Schenectady County, it’s also a member of a four-county regional network that responds to spills.
If Schenectady County’s team can’t respond, another from a neighboring county would assist, said John Nuzback, the county’s fire coordinator. Other hazardous materials teams include one at Stratton Air National Guard Base in Glenville and others that operate at some of the county’s large industrial sites, such as General Electric and the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory.
Nuzback said he can rely on a regional response team or ask one of the private companies for help in a pinch.
But finding an auxiliary crew to respond to a hazardous materials call has never been an issue in his experience as fire coordinator.
“Every time I’ve called them, I’ve gotten them,” he said of the county’s team.