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St. Lawrence County fails to restore funding for hazmat team

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CANTON — St. Lawrence County legislators withheld the restoration of funding Monday for a paid hazardous materials response team, despite a vote last week that they preferred a paid group.

“Let me get this straight,” Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire said. “Last week, you voted not to have a volunteer team. This week, you voted not to fund the team.”

Legislators voted 7-6 at a committee meeting not to take $35,000 from contingency to pay for the 16-member hazmat team, which is on hold because of a lack of annual Occupational Safety & Health Administration training this year. Most of the members are employees of the city of Ogdensburg and the village of Massena.

Some legislators voted against the funding so that the county could work on an agreement with the municipalities to share the burden of paying while training their employees to be better at their jobs in the fire department, rescue squad and police department. The county also pays the salaries of the members while on duty for the team and pays the salaries of their replacements at their regular jobs.

“We subsidize a little bit, that’s fine, but we’re paying the whole thing,” said Legislator Frederick S. Morrill, D-DeKalb Junction.

Some are still hoping a volunteer team could be organized.

Others thought the funding should not be forthcoming until the county knows whether home rule legislation allowing it to raise its sales tax will pass the state Senate this week before the end of session.

“Are we being a little premature when we have so many unknowns?” said Legislator Alex A. MacKinnon, R-Fowler. “I think we should be waiting a little longer.”

Legislator Vernon D. “Sam” Burns, D-Ogdensburg, said the focus should be on what is best for the county.

“What does this have to do with the sales tax? This is a safety issue. We’re talking about people’s lives here,” he said. “Others have asked for volunteers for years. It’s not going to happen. A lot of rescue squads have paid members now because the volunteers aren’t there.”

Legislator Anthony J. Arquiett, D-Helena, said there is a risk in not going forward, but the team has had to respond to only four incidents in recent years, so a less expensive alternative is worth looking at.

County Emergency Services Director Joseph M. Gilbert said he will open up the training, which is free, to anyone. While fire and rescue squad chiefs are enthusiastic about the idea, the response will not be clear until the schedule is set up.

“I don’t see any drawback for volunteers to come and be trained,” said Legislator Mark H. Akins, R-Lisbon. “The key is offering the training.”

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