GLOVERSVILLE - Several city officials are fired up over a disagreement about blight-enforcement duties.
Several Common Council members have expressed displeasure that the city Fire Department has approached the Fulton County Sheriff's Office about using sheriff's personnel to present tickets to violators in the city. The issue was discussed at a recent Fulton County Board of Supervisors meeting. Firefighters are tasked with issuing blight violations and tickets to city property owners.
It's a task firefighters are not properly trained or equipped to do, said Fire Department union President Robert Davis. In a letter to Mayor Dayton King, Davis said firefighters did not sign up to be "Blight Nazis" and are not contractually obligated to perform the work.
"Everything we do is taking a back seat to blight," Davis wrote. "We have gone from being respected in the community to being hated by those we are forced to write up."
Davis said firefighters are willing to negotiate with the city to handle blight ticketing, but they feel they need training and equipment for that job. The city used to use a process server to deliver tickets, but that was cut from the 2010 budget. Police officials have said they do not have the staff to handle serving tickets for code violations, so the task was handed to the Fire Department. Now it is unclear if many tickets are even being served, Davis said.
"No firefighters are serving tickets. We write up the ticket and put it in the box [where the process server takes it]," he said. "Right now, there's really nobody serving tickets."
Mayor Dayton King said the Fire Department has pulled money from its personnel fund balance to pay retired city police officer Dave Edwards about $15 or $20 per ticket to serve them. King said he and the council likely will examine that practice in the near future.
Davis said the Fire Department was given the ticket-serving task without any additional personnel, compensation or training for dealing with belligerent or violent homeowners. He said firefighters would like more discretion in ticketing.
"Right now, if you have an 85-year-old lady who is ill and can't mow her lawn, we have to give her a ticket," he said. "We just want a little flexibility."
Fire Chief Douglas Edwards said firefighters have been physically threatened by people in some blight cases.
"Safety is a huge concern for me," Edwards said. "We've had people come out with dogs threatening a firefighter so they can't even leave."
Edwards said using process servers was cost-effective because often the fee for the process server was added on to the fines levied against the blight violator, negating the cost to pay the server.
King said he is frustrated with the behavior of the Fire Department. He said using a process server is more expensive and disputed that serving tickets is a dangerous activity that requires special training. He said he is also frustrated that the minimum staffing clause was inserted into the department's contract years ago. He said that at 32 members, the Fire Department is the largest department in the city and has remained approximately the same size for many years, while all other departments in the city, particularly the Department of Public Works and Police Department, have been slashed, in some cases by half.
"They don't want to be portrayed as the bad guys," he said. "I've served people with tickets myself. I would continue to do it myself, but I don't think the people of this city want their mayor doing that. There are eight people on every shift [at the Fire Department]. They have plenty of staff to handle this."
Second Ward Councilman John Castiglione agreed. He said he feels the Fire Department was "out of line" in circumventing the council's authority and going directly to the Sheriff's Department. He said he thinks the Fire Department is adequately staffed to handle blight-related ticketing.
"There is no reason they can't," he said. "I've been disappointed in [the department's] reluctance to do anything as far as cutting because of the budget situation. There is blight all over the place, and handling it has been stalled by the Fire Department's failure to perform its responsibilities."
First Ward Councilwoman Robin Wentworth also expressed frustration.
"They should have at least discussed this with the council before going to the Sheriff's Department with it," she said. "We were completely sidestepped. We're elected to make decisions involving taxpayer money and we were not even informed. That is an unacceptable way to conduct city business."
King said he would be willing to discuss creating a separate code enforcement position and removing that responsibility from the Fire Department if the department will renegotiate the minimum staffing clause in its contract. The department and council recently signed a three-year contract that establishes a minimum staffing level.
"We've been cutting staff in all other departments, and the Fire Department is trying to cut their workload," he said. "We have to be more efficient without risking public safety."
Edwards said the department will not open up its contract before it expires in three years.
"[Minimum staffing is] a contractual item that must be negotiated," he said. "The council agreed to that contract."
Edwards declined to say whether or not his department will continue to talk with the Fulton County Sheriff's Office about serving tickets.
Kayleigh Karutis can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.