On the face of it, it makes perfect sense: Consolidating a patchwork of individually self-managed fire departments into one large department that would serve the entire city of Stamford. The financial implications of such a change however makes the argument for consolidation less convincing especially given the current economic climate.
There are four individually self-managed volunteer fire departments in the northern districts of Stamford. The sticking point is management. If the Volunteer departments continue to be self-managed they can ensure the tradition of citizen volunteers, i.e. free labor. But if Charter Revision Question #2 is approved, the management of these departments will be turned over to Stamford Fire & Rescue Department (SRFD), which is an all paid, all unionized fire department that currently supports no volunteers in their district.
The problem regarding consolidation is the inherent conflict of interest from the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) who actively discourage the use of volunteers to fill positions that could otherwise be paid (unionized) fire fighting positions. Acknowledging that volunteers are “important” as outlined in Charter Revision Question #2, does not guarantee their use as a low cost alternative to paid full time city employees.
If we vote for consolidation with SFRD the financial burden to taxpayers will crescendo when the current 100+ active volunteers in the four departments inevitably is reduced due to the pressures & coercion of the union’s interests - more paid positions & expanded membership. Further, the considerable cost of purchasing the six pieces of real estate which house the volunteer fire stations and the dozen or so apparatus, each privately and individually owned by the four volunteer fire departments which are designated as 501 c 3 corporations, will have to be paid for by us.
While I am friendly with people on different sides of this issue, I am an admitted advocate for the average Stamford tax payer. Many numbers have been brandished by both sides, some inflated, some grossly understated. What is missing is the ‘best case/worst case scenario’ cost per household should Charter Revision Question #2 pass. Also unanswered is how the tax burden would be distributed if the consolidation were approved. Potentially every Stamford resident could be exposed to tax increases, including renters who would likely see rents increase to help shoulder the costs of their tax paying landlords.
The Board of Representatives (BOR) has unloaded Charter Revision Question #2 to the public because the decision is too politically volatile. The BOR risks alienating the IAFF or alienating the tax payers who will inevitably feel the financial pain of higher property taxes. So we as residents have to vote to signal to our elected officials how we stand with regards to property tax increases. In my neighborhood there are numerous houses for sale and even a couple of blighted properties. I question how much more this real estate market can tolerate in property tax increases especially compared to our neighbors with comparable taxes but who enjoy higher quality school systems.
There is little doubt that the Byzantine system of four individually self-managed volunteer fire departments is ripe for reorganization but to surrender the cost benefits of volunteer manpower in the current economic crisis would be fiscally reckless. These volunteer departments were created about 70 years ago during our nations greatest financial hardship. When we face economic challenges second only to that Great Depression can we really afford now to give up such a valuable resource that the volunteers provide?
As a neighbor & tax payer, I ask you to consider carefully what we can afford both individually and collectively when you vote on Charter Revision Question #2.