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Editorial: Inefficiency in fire protection

Fire districts have to be among one of the most sensitive local issues that nearly no one wants to tackle. But when one neighbor sees another across the street paying far less for this critical protection, questions are going to arise. They need to be answered in a way that takes account of modern conditions and works to reduce the number of taxing districts in Erie County.

A recent News article examined the disparity between the fire district costs in North Amherst compared to Getzville. The difference was measurable and more than just a few dollars. For David Prisaznuk, the additional cost comes to $578 a year more than if his house were on the other side of Schoelles Road in Amherst.

This is a hot topic and one that is not going to be solved by expecting neighbors in Getzville to suddenly agree to pay more. Nevertheless, the difference in costs is unreasonable. Something needs to change.

Many times, residents do not know enough about how fire districts work. They may not know the elected commissioners. For that matter, they may not know elections took place. And there’s the budget and budget meetings, oftentimes held in fire halls.

Any tax or fee should be explained, discussed and decided upon by as many citizens as possible. No one should be surprised.

Prisaznuk has lived in his home on Schoelles for 32 years. Even he never noticed how high his fire district taxes were compared to his neighbors. That is, until five years ago, when he looked at his neighbor’s $40,000 higher assessment. The neighbor’s fire district taxes were lower. Prisaznuk is an accountant. For him, the numbers did not add up.

That’s when he discovered the invisible dividing line between the North Amherst and Getzville districts running down the middle of his street. News staff reporter Stephen T. Watson detailed the discovery, the wide differences between rates in North Amherst versus Getzville.

Fire district tax rates vary across Amherst, some based on the size of the companies’ budgets but most often because of the amount of taxable property with each district.

North Amherst with its covered public parkland with no assessed value, farmland and fewer houses and businesses has a shallow well from which to draw.

Getzville, on the other hand, has $2.1 billion in assessed value, 8,680 parcels (including CrossPoint Business Park, commercial properties along Maple and Sweet Home roads, major thoroughfares and extensive residential development).

North Amherst has $93.6 million in assessed value, and 490 parcels. The aforementioned parkland, farmland and fewer houses make for a bucolic scene but not much in the way of anything that could help to lower the cost of the fire district.

Will officials allow North Amherst to merge with a neighboring fire district like Getzville? The likelihood of residents in both districts approving a merger is slim, but the disparity in costs is simply too great to tolerate. It is proof of the need for change.

The problem is replicated across Erie County and all of New York, where governments and taxing districts practically trip over, insisting that consolidations are too something – risk? unwanted? efficient? – to bear consideration. But an extra $578 a year isn’t chump change.

One option, favored by Prisaznuk, would create a single fire protection district for the town, preserving individual districts and fire companies. Everyone within the town would pay the same tax rate. There is precedent for this in Lancaster, with the exception of the villages of Depew and Lancaster. It would require a referendum. It would be a difficult argument, but it needs to happen.

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