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Community seeks answers about Norwood fire department restrictions at village meeting

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NORWOOD — Firefighters and community members expressed their concerns to the village board Monday night at a meeting filled with questions about the new spate of restrictions that has been levied on the village’s volunteer fire department.

Many of these restrictions were made in an effort to reduce accidents. The village has had eight workers’ compensation claims in the last eight years, according to Mayor James H. McFaddin, two of which cost the village more than $100,000. The most recent, and most costly, was brought on by an accident involving a firefighter attempting to do something he was specifically told not to do, Mr. McFaddin said.

In response, the village banned the use of the fire department headquarters below the municipal building for all non-official uses. In addition, the village has required more safety training for the department, as well as better documentation of which members are qualified for which tasks.

“Everyone will have a tag with all their qualifications on the back of it,” Assistant Fire Chief Tina Garrow said.

The restrictions have stirred up controversy and rumors about what might be coming next, including a suggestion that the beloved Norwood Brass Firemen band is in danger of being shut down.

This is completely untrue, Mr. McFaddin said. The band will continue to operate just as it always has, and is in no way involved in the department’s contract negotiations.

Band member Joseph M. Liotta choked up several times as he read a prepared statement defending the band.

“We are still the Norwood Fire Department band,” he said.

The department is in the midst of contract negotiations with the village. Many of the proposed restrictions are tied to these negotiations.

This includes a proposed membership cap in the new contract that would limit the number of firefighters to 45.

“I think you’re doing a disservice to the community and the people of Norwood by cutting it back to 45,” fire department Treasurer Timothy F. Donahue said.

Half of the department’s 44 members are over age 50, Mr. Donahue said. Limiting the number of firefighters could cripple much-needed recruitment.

According to Mr. McFaddin, the 45-member limit was put in place to prepare for a coming change in federal law, included in the Affordable Care Act, that would require all businesses with at least 50 full-time employees to pay for health insurance. The Internal Revenue Service has long labeled volunteer firefighters as employees, which stirred up worries that communities will have to begin paying for health insurance for their fire departments.

Norwood could not afford this expense, Mr. McFaddin said.

However, earlier this month, the Department of the Treasury issued a statement that volunteer firefighters will not be considered employees under the Affordable Care Act.

As long as this holds out, Mr. McFaddin said, he would not object to lifting the cap.

“It’s an arbitrary number that we’re using in negotiation,” he said.

Much of the Board of Trustees meeting Monday was spent discussing the difference between the fire department itself and the fire department association, a nonprofit organization created in the 1970s to raise funds and make purchases on the department’s behalf. As a separate entity, the association should create its own bylaws, separate from those of the department, Mr. McFaddin said.

“If they were separated it would eliminate some confusion,” he said.

The legal status of the department itself also was briefly debated. According to Mr. McFaddin, the Norwood Volunteer Fire Department is a nonprofit corporation that contracts with the village; it is not incorporated into the village government.

The village’s attorney, Robert H. Ballan, backs up this statement, as does a recent court ruling.

However, some firefighters believe this to be in error, saying the current contract negotiations are improper and unnecessary.

Some members of the fire department have met with a lawyer to discuss the matter.

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