To hear our emergency forces — cops, firefighters and EMTs — tell it, Ulster County’s communication systems are in very serious need of upgrading.
The county’s e-911 emergency communications system on Golden Hill in Kingston is not only antiquated, charged members of the volunteer Fire Safety Advisory Board at a meeting of the county legislature’s Law Enforcement and Public Safety Committee this week, but vendors are now telling the county they won’t be making parts for it much longer.
“The system is severely compromised and is currently on life support,” reported Bill Ecker of Gardiner, chairman of the advisory board.
None of this was news to either the legislature or the county executive. These stark statements having been detailed in a “shelved” consultant’s report two years ago.
The issue is rife with minefields, not the least of which is its cost, who’s going to pay for it and where half a dozen new cell towers will be erected.
As initially outlined two years ago, consultants estimated the cost of upgrading Ulster’s 20-year-old e-911 system at $27 million, with fire companies picking up $7 million of the tab. A survey by the fire board of 51 companies (including Kingston’s professional force) found 21 against the proposal, 15 in favor and 15 non-responses. A survey taken late last year by the fire board showed a significant shift of 33 to 13 in favor with four non-responses.
It appears that what has changed, other than increasing experiences with communications difficulties in the field, was the price tag. The latest figure of $16 million is based on Saratoga County’s upgraded emergency communications system. If the initial formula of a three to one ratio of county to local funding still holds, the firehouse share would come to about $4 million.
All fire districts (except Kingston) have taxing authority but for some the hit would be onerous. “It’s just another county mandate,” grumbled one commissioner after the meeting. “We’re volunteers, after all.”
There was talk of homeland security grants and the like. Absent a definitive plan, Ecker told a group of about a dozen legislators, those grants are unlikely. Planning and execution could take from three to five years, he said. He recommended a paid coordinator and a volunteer committee to oversee operations.
“We need to get started. We need to take this thing off the shelf,” said Law Enforcement and Public Safety Committee Chairman T.J. Briggs, himself a 40-year volunteer with the Ellenville fire department. “I intend to talk to the county executive [Mike Hein] and Art Snyder [the emergency response director] first thing in the morning. This is their responsibility.”
But is it? Majority Leader Don Gregorius of Woodstock takes the position that “this is a policy issue, and policy is made by the legislature.”
Others will disagree. An upgrade of the antiquated system is long overdue. Creating a new system that never existed would be a policy decision. An upgrade isn’t, at least in my view. But it might be a convenient excuse for the county administration to continue stalling on this most vital public-safety issue.
Minority Leader Ken Ronk of Wallkill put the whole matter in perspective toward the end of the 90-minute meeting. Glancing toward the rear of the room where a group of fire officers and commissioners were sitting, he said, “I expect to see some heads shaking when I say this, but if the system breaks down there’s no sense in having fire trucks.”
Heads bobbed, in both directions.
The executive, who only talks about what he wants to talk about and did not mention this subject in his annual state-of-the-county address last month, was, as usual, unavailable for comment.
For Chris’ sake
It was one of those kinds of weeks for U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson.
On one hand, he toured his district touting a recently enacted farm bill that promises much for a large segment of his rural constituency and for their customers. He also secured the Independence Party endorsement, thereby picking up maybe 20,000 votes in the November elections and discouraging political mischief in his own Republican Party.
In a press release, Gibson declared that the Indy endorsement demonstrated his independence from political bosses. Alas, the ideologically undefined Independence Party is the most boss-controlled of all the parties that matter. Nominations statewide, and even on the local level, are determined by a handful of party leaders in Albany backrooms.
While the farm vote was largely positive and will play well for the incumbent, there lurked therein the seeds of future grief for the congressman — its highly controversial food-stamp component. The Democratic spin coming out of Washington was that heartless Republicans had literally taken the food out of the mouths of poor, starving Americans in order to achieve some far-off fiscal stability.
Gibson, a detail man with a tendency toward convolution, says that’s not the case at all. The farm bill slows the growth in food-stamp funding, he says, and provides tools to weed out fraud and corruption. “There were no cuts,” he insisted.
His subtraction-by-addition pitch didn’t make total sense to me, but then I don’t have to run against him in November.
The simplistic choices on debt seemed to be either raising borrowing (at its height about a third of the federal budget) or shutting down the government by March 15. Gibson, by voting against the increase, which passed with overwhelming Democratic support, can and will be perceived as a shutdown guy.
Though the vote speaks for itself, Gibson, consistent with previous votes, speaks to fiscal responsibility. He supports raising the debt limit if and only if legislation also addresses the deficit, as occurred the last two times Congress voted on this issue. This time a clean-bill majority prevailed, absent Gibson.
Laying this off on House leadership — “The speaker made a political decision to saddle Democrats with this issue in the fall,” Gibson said — will probably play both ways in Gibson’s congressional district. He’ll probably win a few votes in the Adirondack conservative northern end and lose more in the liberal Ulster portion. As such, our congressman has a difficult balancing act.
The county executive’s speech before the Ulster County Regional Chamber of Commerce last week was polished, as usual. He’s gotten really good at this aspect of his job.
Attempts at humor got mixed results, however. At one point in a overlong 49-minute address, Hein, Ulster’s first and only county executive, declared himself tongue-in-check “the best county executive in history,” adding, with a pause and a smile, “and …” It took the usual sell-out breakfast audience a couple of beats to catch his badda-boom. (Clue: “and … the worst.”)
A second attempt was more curious than funny. Doing a Jimmy Fallon, Hein introduced his mother, Rose Hein, to the audience. Mother Hein got a nice hand after which her son looked at his watch and quipped, “Gee, it’s only a little past eight o’clock and she hasn’t started cursing yet.” I found this a cringeworthy moment.