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Oswego Council Committee Revisits OFD Budget, Rental Inspection Fee Proposal

OSWEGO, NY – On the agenda for Monday night’s Administrative Services Committee agenda further discussion on the Oswego Fire Department’s operational study and continued discussion regarding a proposed increase to the city’s rental inspection fees were two separate items. But as the discussion wore on, the dialogues overlapped.

For nearly two and a half hours Monday night, the fire department was on the hot seat.

The department’s operational study was first discussed at the March 17 committee meeting.

Since then, the department’s website has featured the report at www.ofd13126.com It has received 391 hits, according to Jeff McCrobie, fire chief.

He said he has fielded questions “from most of the aldermen” regarding questions they had from constituents.

“We are more than open to any and all questions and comments,” the chief said. “There is a direct email to my office, [email protected], for the public to question me. It has received zero responses.”

Members of the public can also reach him at his office 343-2161.

“I stand behind the study and what it represents,” McCrobie said. “And, some of its numbers are coming true as we are at one ambulance now.”

The department is working 24-hour shifts.

Since the department is doing codes, ambulance and fire, how is it structured during the day, one audience member asked.

“Right now, I have a variety of codes officials on each shift. They are able to handle a lot of it when they are on duty,” the chief replied. “It’s not a complete even breakdown; I still have some people going to school for it.”

There is an 11-man minimum on each shift, two of those are assigned codes. If an emergency comes in and they are on codes, they would leave what they are doing and be dispatched to the emergency, McCrobie explained.

“They’re not exclusive on codes. That’s why some of it needs to be done off duty. That would mean comp time or overtime,” he said. “This codes thing is very new to us. To be honest, it’s a lot more in depth than what I imagined when it was turned over to us. We’re taking the calls as they come in.”

Adding the codes to what the department already was doing seems like an awful burden to the whole department, an audience member observed.

“It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of work. I won’t deny that,” the chief agreed, receiving a smattering of applause from a former employee of the Code Enforcement Office, which the city abolished Dec. 31, 2013.

Fire-based EMS are the way things are being done now, the chief said in regards to the ambulance service, adding, “I believe it makes money, it brings in revenue.”

It seems like there is a lot of contention all the way through this process, an audience member told the chief.

“I completely understand what you’re saying,” the chief replied. “But when my bosses charge me with show us revenues, show us ways to make revenue, I present these things.”

“So what do your firemen say to you when you present all these different options to them that they have to be responsible for?”

“They’re the responsibilities that I give them. It’s the way it is,” McCrobie said.

Another audience member said she didn’t see why (former housing inspector) Pat Kelly couldn’t continue to do the job; it’s an unfair burden to put on the fire department.

“You let her go and you’re going to have five or six firemen go and inspect my apartments, are you kidding me?” she said.

There are other fire departments that have that responsibility in their city, Council President Ron Kaplewicz said.

“I feel for those firemen. They have their job to do. They have to take care of our city if there is a fire,” she continued. “I think you made a big mistake by letting Pat Kelly go. She was very efficient, she was a wonderful person. People respected her. Everybody is so unhappy here. You ask someone on the street are they happy with what’s going on? No, they’re not.”

Twelve percent of the time they have seven people on a shift, which means there are two ambulances (four people) out, the chief said. Twenty percent of the time there is one ambulance out.

“This isn’t the first time the fire department has been used to do code inspections,” said former councilor Sue Sweet. “This is nothing new. They were sent out all the time to do building code inspections.”

Kelly refuted a quote in the paper attributed to a council member as to why it takes nine firemen to do the work of one inspector.

“Because the people that were doing it, weren’t dong their job,” she quoted Councilor Mike Todd. “I’ll take you through my ward and show you 200 houses that haven’t been touched in about 20 years.”

She challenged Todd and any other councilor “to walk with me, who doesn’t think I was doing my job, to take a walk with me through your wards and show me the rentals that you think were not inspected.”

Since the current council and mayor have been in office, she has conducted a total of 3,454 inspections; 1,143 units failed and 2,311 passed, Kelly said, adding that she cited 4,596 violations.

Todd charged that Kelly was given requests for (freedom of information) and failed to respond all three times.

The FOIL requests went to Neal Smith, former code enforcement officer, Kelly responded.

Why can’t the firefighters do the inspections for the same price everyone else was doing it for, an audience member wanted to know.

It’s just a proposal, the chief noted.

It is a value to have his people out doing the inspections, the chief added. It gives them information about several buildings that could be useful in the event the department ever has to respond there for a fire or other emergency, he explained.

“I’m trying to handle the work that’s assigned me. How we got here was not my decision. I’m just taking on the work that I’ve been given,” the chief said.

The chief was also question as to why firefighters took city vehicles to places like stores and fast food restaurants while they were working.

“They are on 24-hour shifts. There is no scheduled lunch break; they don’t go home for lunch, they don’t go home for dinner … so on duty, I allow them to go get their stuff and bring it back to the fire house and prepare it. Hence, the engine company stays together, the ambulance company stays together because they’re in service,” he explained.

“They still have at the end of the shift or the beginning of the shift” (to get their stuff), interjected former councilor Dick Atkins. “Or they could have food delivered.”

The rental inspection fees is an issue the council needs to deal with, Kaplewicz said.

“It’s not about generating revenue. It’s about covering costs,” he said. “Nobody likes change. I get that. But we can’t do business as usual.”

Former code enforcement employee Veronica Caprin asked the city to do a comparison study at the end of the year so everyone could see how the new way compares with what the code enforcement department did.

How many inspections will be done this year and how much money they will take in versus what the code enforcement office did, she said.

Several options were suggested such as keeping things the same, charge for re-inspecting and not the first inspection, rewarding landlords that continue to have good inspections and target the bad landlords in an attempt to get them to improve their properties.

“We’re all on the same page,” Sweet said. “We all want to see the city move forward in a fantastic way.”

“Let’s see where this thing goes; this is just discussion. Let’s get something on paper, if we need anything on paper,” Kaplewicz said. “Give us a chance to work on something here. This is a continuing dialogue.”

The committee took no action Monday night. More discussion will take among the councilors and landlords and the topic will return to the council floor at a later date.