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NIAGARA FIRE FORCE FEELS THE HEAT

Feuding between the town and its two volunteer fire companies brought down Niagara Fire Company No. 1 in 2001.

Now, fighting between the Town Board and Niagara Active Hose is threatening the remaining company's existence.

Amid allegations the fire company misused town funds, the Town Board and Active Hose have been trying since Jan. 1 to reach agreement on a 2005 contract.

Meanwhile, firefighters are working without a contract, and nerves are frayed.

"We'll continue to service the town as long as we can afford to put gas in the trucks," said Damon A. DeCastro, the Niagara Falls lawyer who represents the fire company. Without town funding, the company will be broke by the end of summer, DeCastro said.

The Town Board has been reluctant to settle a contract because town leaders have lost confidence in Active Hose. A letter sent earlier this month to residents by Supervisor Steven Richards laid out a list of concerns, including:

Vendors calling Town Hall saying they are owed money.

A call from Key Bank last fall informing the town the fire company missed a fire truck payment, even though the fire company had received a $57,706 check from the town in August.

E-mails to Town Board members from former firefighters alleging that bar money had been stolen.

Low marks from an international company that grades firefighter training.

Accusations that thousands of dollars in bingo money is unaccounted for. Two former members of Active Hose were convicted of stealing more than $30,000 from the same account in separate incidents during the last five years.

Reports from some fire company members that tens of thousands of dollars in workers' compensation claims have been paid for injuries that did not occur during "firematic" duties.

"The town pays more in compensation costs to our firemen than the total amount paid by the other 26 volunteer fire companies in Niagara County," Richards said in the letter. Those costs will exceed $310,000 in 2006, the supervisor said.

Sheriff Thomas A. Beilein and Investigator Daniel Brown said they are not conducting any investigations into the fire company.

The suggestion of corruption in the fire department is hurting recruitment, DeCastro said. "You know why they only have 40 members?" he said. "Because they're called criminals."

Impasse raises concern

Meanwhile, the contract impasse has begun to worry the 75 firms in the town's Business and Professional Association.

"At the last board meeting it was very much a concern, and individual businesses are wondering what can be done," said Jennifer Cooper, the group's president.

Richards was in Florida all of last week, leaving Councilman Marc M. Carpenter to head last Tuesday's fiery Town Board meeting, where residents expressed strong support for the fire company.

"Niagara Active takes more calls than any other fire department in the entire county," said Janelle Messer, a dispatcher for the Niagara County Sheriff's Department."

$144,000 not enough

Active Hose received $144,000 in town money last year, which marked the end of a four-year contract. In negotiating a new five-year pact, Active Hose asked for $220,000 for this year's operating expenses, said Robert E. Jasper Sr., fire company president and a former chief. Active Hose cannot operate on $144,000, Jasper said.

Daniel J. Hosie, second assistant chief, acknowledged a potential threat to the town from inadequate fire protection. He said residents and business people will be the losers. "We're here to protect lives, not jeopardize lives," he said.

Even before the last contract expired, the town said it would suspend Active Hose's funding because of an $87,000 shortfall in the company's books. Firefighters, including Hosie, were so incensed they showed up at the house of Councilman Michael J. Ross and threatened to disband.

The company handed over its books to the town last week and is still intact, but firefighters say they're operating on a shoestring with outdated equipment.

The $144,000 paid to the fire company for fire protection averages about $16 for each of the town's 9,000 residents.

By comparison, Pendleton last year paid Wendelville Fire Company $200,000 -- about $33 for each of the 6,000 residents of that town.

"If you compare figures across the board, you'd find that Niagara Active Hose is getting paid less than other towns in the county," said Pendleton Supervisor James Riester, who is also the first-aid captain at Wendelville.

Pendleton and Niagara are the only towns in Niagara County with one fire company, Riester noted. And the Town of Niagara is the only town in the county that hasn't been divided into separate fire protection districts.

In contract talks with the town's two fire companies four years ago, firefighters rejected the Town Board's attempt to divide the town into two sections, with each company overseeing its own district.

"This is how it's done in every other town in Niagara and Erie counties," Richards said in the newsletter.

When the town had two volunteer departments, the single-district system meant that "when the alarm sounded, it was an all-out race to beat each other to the call," Richards said. "Once on the scene, there was more confusion from having two fire chiefs, two sets of line officers, plus the fact that the two fire companies were always at odds with one other."

Fire company closed

The Town Board shut down Niagara Fire Company No. 1 after members of Active Hose charged that Niagara 1 firefighters were incompetent and a threat to themselves and the community.

"Niagara Active Hose is now doing double duty," said De-Castro. "We understand there are fiscal constraints on the town, but we're operating on a shoestring budget."

In the newsletter mailed earlier this month, the town supervisor detailed the long-standing feud between the two fire companies. One glaring example occurred on the way to a car accident at Lockport and Packard roads, he said.

"Niagara No. 1 pulled out in front of Active Hose as they both raced to the scene," Richards recalled. "When Active Hose arrived at the accident, the first thing they did was pull the driver out of Niagara No. 1's truck and wrestle him in plain view of the police."

Richards said Active Hose firefighters accused members of Niagara No. 1 of being unfit for duty. "I am convinced the plan of Active Hose from the beginning was to shut down Niagara No. 1," Richards said.

On the advice of James C. Volkosh, Niagara County fire coordinator, the Town Board hired Harold "Bud" Phillips of Public Safety Management of Rochester to evaluate both companies.

"It was obvious Niagara No. 1 was in serious trouble," Richards said after reviewing Phillips' report. "Active Hose, while still in service, was also deficient in many areas, including budgeting."

'Nothing to hide'

After Niagara No. 1 was shut down, Active Hose promised to improve training and make its financial records available.

"When it comes to accountability, we're not going to bend," Councilman Lavern E. Haseley said last week. "They're going to have to show us their books, and that's all there is to it."

The fire company opened all its books to the Town Board last week.

"We have nothing to hide," said DeCastro.

However, town officials continue to have serious doubts about workers' compensation claims, which have jacked up firefighting costs.

"The Town Board is getting murdered on those compensation premiums," Town Attorney Robert P. Merino said.

The Town Board's main goal, said Ross, is to keep taxes down.

Jeopardizing the existence of the town's last fire company is no way to achieve that goal, De-Castro said.

Shutting down the fire company and paying another company like neighboring Niagara Falls Fire Department to serve the town would cost at least $1.5 million, he claimed.

Richards was due back from Florida this week. Before he left, he said he hoped "cooler heads would prevail and we can settle this matter real fast."

During his absence, the heat was still on.

e-mail: pkowalik@buffnews.com
and bmichelmore@buffnews.com