Volunteer fire companies can be one of the touchiest subjects in Erie County’s volatile political landscape.
For many people, they are beloved — almost sacrosanct — entities.
Few public officials want to criticize the companies — or call for their downsizing.
Yet the number of fire districts in Erie County, and the amount of money they annually collect through special taxes, makes them a subject of importance to Erie County’s future.
That’s one thing both candidates running for Erie County executive agree on.
After that, Chris Collins and Mark C. Poloncarz disagree fundamentally on the issue.
Collins, the Republican incumbent, and Poloncarz, the Democratic county comptroller, are the two candidates running this fall for the county’s top office.
Poloncarz fired an early salvo on the issue last year, releasing a report describing the more than 90 volunteer fire companies in Erie County and showing how their costs are rising.
Monday, the issue created a skirmish between the two campaigns — as Collins’ camp blasted Poloncarz for what they called his desire to consolidate volunteer companies.
“Unlike my opponent who calls for consolidation of fire companies,” Collins said, “I will defer to city, town and village mayors and supervisors all the time without exception.”
Collins’ camp produced quotes from Poloncarz at a St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute debate it says underscores the comptroller’s intention to consolidate fire companies.
But Poloncarz’s campaign responded by saying that Poloncarz does not want to “close” volunteer departments, no matter what the Collins camp might be saying in “misleading mail pieces,” a Poloncarz spokesman said. He could not furnish examples of those mailings.
Poloncarz’s 2010 report showed that costs for all the volunteer companies in Erie County — $46.5 million as of last year — had risen 36 percent between 2000 and 2010, a Buffalo News story at the time reported.
Read on for more on the views of the two candidates on the subject of fire companies.
Mark C. Poloncarz
Poloncarz said his goal with the report he issued last year was simple: He wants to get people talking about the costs and benefits of volunteer fire companies.
Poloncarz said he wants Erie County to take on the job of doing a comprehensive review of all the companies, with an eye toward making them both vibrant and appropriately sized in the future.
“These districts are little governments. They are special taxing districts,” he said. “I fully support the volunteers. I appreciate them putting their lives on the line for our communities. I just hope we’re serving them as a community the best we can.”
Poloncarz said his concerns about the companies have to do in large part with demographics.
“We’ve seen tremendous population loss — and there’s been a change in the need,” he said. “Some towns might actually require more fire service; other towns might require less. What can we do to be sure we can have enough volunteers and the right amount of coverage in the right places?”
Poloncarz said that he is not calling for a replacement of volunteer firefighters in the suburbs with paid firefighters.
And, he said, he is aware that there are limits to what the county executive can do on the subject.
“We need the volunteer firefighters involved in the review,” he said. “This needs their cooperation and involvement.”
Poloncarz said that he has always stood behind his report on the fire companies.
“I’ve never been afraid to stand up and take the tough questions,” he said.
When it comes to the future of volunteer fire companies, Collins believes it’s a call to be made by the towns, cities and villages.
“One of my six core values — it’s amazing how those help guide me — is local decision making,” Collins said. “We should defer to those who make a decision locally. They know best what their community needs, whether it’s a tax assessor or an IDA or a volunteer fire company.”
It’s an issue Collins has hammered his Democratic opponent for. The Collins campaign has produced a commercial showing Collins touring a fire hall with Lake View firefighter John Wicka.
Collins, a Clarence resident, believes that’s outside of the scope of the county executive’s duties.
“He doesn’t have the authority to do it anyway; it’s a ‘home rule’ state,” Collins said. “He doesn’t understand how government works. In a home rule state, those decisions are uniquely made by the city, town or village.”
Collins said he believes the county’s role is to support first responders with resources used by all of the fire companies. He points to three live burning training centers that have been replaced by the county.
Beyond that, he said, decisions should be local.
“If Clarence wants five volunteer companies, Clarence is paying for those five volunteer fire companies,” Collins said. “It’s not part of the county budget. They should have their five volunteer fire companies. It’s kind of that simple.”
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News Staff Reporters Stephen T. Watson and Robert J. McCarthy contributed to this report.