Village of Mount Morris
Mount Morris seeks way to pay for new fire hall
The sign in the lot where Chapel Street ascends the hill near the cemetery announces the vacant parcel as future location of a new Mount Morris fire station.
By a count of 295-to-245 the village citizens of Mount Morris voted on March 15, 2011 to borrow $3 million to build this new station. To date, however, the site’s lone evidence of construction has been the erection of the sign.
In a Monday interview with The County News, Mount Morris Mayor Harold Long explained the dearth of activity.
“We’ve been winding through the ways in which to pay for the firehall ever since the vote,” he said.
The village’s first attempt was to secure a grant/loan through USDA stimulus funding (of which the grant component will probably be less than ten percent). It was unsuccessful.
However, the application has remained active and in mid-March the village received a positive response from USDA. The low interest rate of the loan combined with a fraction of grant assistance seems to be the most economical financing package presently available.
Long points out that use of the loan/grant will require parallel financing, since the USDA money comes to the village only in the form of reimbursement for what has already been spent. The village will therefore need to bond itself in standard fashion so that debt payments on the new fire station can be synchronized with USDA paybacks. Currently the village is in the process of assembling a bond anticipation note for this primary debt with the assistance of its fiscal advisor.
The debt will be accrued in separate steps.
“It would make no sense to borrow the entire $3 million and start right off paying the interest on it all,” Long said.
Basic specifications and requests for proposals have been prepared for the fire station design, but under USDA rules, the village is prevented from advertising for building contractor bids until funding is authorized.
“But we are at the stage where, after 21 years of discussion, it is going to happen,” Long promises.
Long suggests that the lenders, USDA in particular, rather than the village, are “writing the script” for construction.
While a 2013 ground breaking date is a reasonable possibility, Long is making no commitment.
However, the financing process is such that village taxpayers will begin to feel the impact of the fire station debt with their 2013 tax bill. A worse case scenario — with no contributing savings from other budget lines — will impose an additional $1.00 on the rate per thousand assessed property value.
Osajca inheritance ceded to fire companies
Despite consternation over a recent item in the Mount Morris Shopper suggesting the village was attempting to take money rightfully belonging to the Mount Morris fire companies, Mayor Long asserts that the very opposite is the case:
The village has surrendered any and all claim it may have had on an approximate $400,000 which Mount Morris farmer and World War II veteran John Osajca left in his will to ‘The Mount Morris Fire Department.’
Osajca left money to a score of worthy organizations, but then choose just five — Mount Morris and Nunda fire departments, Mount Morris Ambulance, Oakview Cemetery and St. Stanislaus Cemetery — to share the substantial proceeds from the auctioning of his land.
“When the will was probated, like the fire companies, we were named to go to a hearing to see whether there were any objections to the disbursements of the funds,” Long stated. “We as a village choose not to file any legal action [to lay claim to the $400,000 over the fire companies.]”
Long agrees that the village certainly could have made a case that it, and not the three fire companies, was the intended recipient of the money.
“But instead we sat down with the firefighters and asked them what they were going to use the money for,” Long reports. “They had what we felt were appropriate uses — plans to buy new trucks and replace equipment.”
Rather than enter litigation in which both parties may have wasted a significant portion of the inheritance in attorney costs, consensus on both sides was to let the fire companies have the full inheritance with the understanding that it would be spent in a useful manner.
A complex relationship
Distinctions, roles, and responsibilities as they relate to the fire department as a branch of village government and to the Seymour Chemical, Active Hose and Living Stream companies which supply the volunteer firefighting manpower are at times subtle and have been confused even by the entities themselves.
Long cites the discovery only five years ago of a legal error in the chronology of appointing the fire chief, in which the village had been too early in accepting the recommendation from the fire council (which represents the three companies).
While both the village and the companies expend funds upon, and are owners of, fire protection equipment, the village alone will be the owner of the new station.
However, until just last week, when a subdivided section which will contain the new station was sold to the village for $23,000, the entire property was owned by the fire companies.
“We recognize the fire companies as independent and autonomous. To a large extent they have their own financial structure and bylaws.
Still, no one becomes a firefighter for the Village of Mount Morris unless they are approved by the village board,” Long noted. “On the other hand, the fire department is a tax-based part of village government. The fire chief, when he is appointed by the village board, becomes effectively a department head.”
“So, who is ‘the Mount Morris Fire Department?’” Long asks.
“It’s easy to reason that the men who are fighting the fires are the fire department. The chief is the head line officer — although the village board is the head administrative body which makes sure the firefighters are adequately equipped.”
Continuing to explain the distinction, Long points out, “Particular trucks and other items of equipment owned by the companies are lent to the village for its use when there is a fire, but are maintained by the fire companies.”
(Meanwhile, town governments are likewise obligated under law to provide fire protection to their residents. The Town of Mount Morris contracts its fire protection from the Village of Mount Morris on a 40-60 cost basis, but in theory the town is free to contract the service from some other entity, such as a neighboring fire department.
This independence justified the exclusion of town-outside-village residents in the fire station referendum. Town representatives are nonetheless invited to make suggestions for the village fire protection budgeting.)
The $23,000 paid last week by the village to the fire companies will not be given back for use in the construction of the new fire station. The cost of the new fire station will be borne by the taxpayers of the village — and though contract by the taxpayers of the town — over the next 30 years.
The fire companies will be using the proceeds from the village land purchase and from the Osajca inheritance (still to be released from the lengthy probate process) for new truck and equipment needs.
Firefighters additionally report a tentative plan to build a pavilion and training ground on the remaining part of the Chapel Street property, with a suitable plaque of appreciation acknowledging John Osajca’s gift.