Mayor and council brainstorm new grant ideas

Feb. 2 – New Oneonta Mayor Mark Drnek told the city’s city council at its Feb. 1 meeting that he likes to think outside the box when discussing two proposed grant programs the city explore.

Drnek introduced the Community Enhancement Initiative, a community grant program that would reimburse residents for small neighborhood projects to benefit the community. The council also discussed a federal grant that would add eight firefighters to the Oneonta Fire Department.

The mayor gave half a dozen examples of the type of projects he is considering, such as birdhouses, pathway bridges and community gardens. Picture this, Drnek said, “a quilting club donates a dozen hand-sewn quilted blankets to the warming station. The city reimburses the club for the fabric.”

In general, Drnek said, he wants the public to come up with their own ideas on how to improve the quality of life and get support from the city to make their ideas a reality.

The mayor did not discuss specific program details, such as the size of the grant, the application process or funding sources. City staff have “worked as a team to navigate” these issues.

Board member David Rissberger, D-Third Ward, asked the first question during the discussion portion of the board agenda: “I realize you haven’t finalized it yet, but with this grant you’re talking about, where does the money go where you come from to fund the grant?”

City administrator Greg Mattice explained that “the devil is in the details, and we’re still figuring out exactly how this might work. We haven’t found a solution yet, we’re looking at all sources of funding.”

The city’s general fund cannot be used for the grant as currently defined, due to state regulations.

“I like the spirit of this one,” Rissberger said, but added he had questions, “especially since it’s tax money we’re talking about using.”

“The mayor’s idea has merit,” Rissberger said in a follow-up phone interview after the council meeting.

“Finding a way to put money back into the community, not just fix potholes and replace aging infrastructure, would be nice. And we don’t have a lot of opportunities to do that because of the cost of everything, including infrastructure and staff and retirement expenses.”

Common Council also discussed a federal grant application the city is submitting to expand the fire department.

The board approved the submission of a grant application to the Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Staffing (SAFER) program, administered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Agency for emergency management. The grant would cover the salary and benefits of up to eight full-time firefighters, at an estimated cost of $2.2 million.

Oneonta Fire Chief Brian Knapp joined the council meeting to explain the details of the grant. Federal funds would fund a partnership with the Bassett Health Care Network. The department would provide firefighters to drive ambulances to transfer patients between medical facilities when not needed to fight fires.

“It is possible that this will be a positive cash flow” for the city.

Earlier this year, he told City Council, “you tasked us with finding new sources of revenue” as the department tried for years to add new staff. He explained that the idea for the current grant application came about through staff brainstorming and meetings with Bassett.

The fire department has 24 firefighters – four teams, with one captain and five firefighters per team. “With six of us on duty at a time, if we leave we have to call in guys from home” to cover the station. Until they arrive, there is sometimes a period when the station is unstaffed, Chief Knapp explained during a conversation at the fire station Monday afternoon. The fire station responded to 328 calls in January 2022, he said.

“Every winter it’s busier, but this year it’s been…” Knapp trailed off, searching for the right word. “It’s a lot.”

Mike Forster Rothbart, editor, can be reached at [email protected] or 607-441-7213.

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