Oneida eyes improvements at parks, raise for fire chief

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ONEIDA — The Oneida Common Council held its third budget meeting on Monday, scrutinizing proposed spending in the city’s fire and parks departments.

Fire Chief Dennis Fields lobbied councilors for an 8% salary increase over the next two years for the chief — something he said was long overdue, making the argument that pay raises for department heads were one of the items axed from the 2021 budget.

And while pay increases were cut as the city prepared for potential COVID-19 related budget issues, department heads took on more work — especially Fields. “I was appointed ‘Emergency Manager,’” Fields said at the Monday budget meeting. “I was tasked with writing policy for not only the Fire Department but the entire city. All COVID questions and research continues to be my responsibility.”

Ward 3 Councilor Jim Coulthart expressed concern over an 8% salary increase, but Fields said he has been doing more work than ever. Regularly, Fields said, he needs to dissect information from the Madison County Department of Health, the State Department of Health, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the governor’s office, among other agencies.

“All of that is reported every week to the mayor and have been doing this for more than a year and a half,” Fields said.

Ward 1 Councilor Carrie Earl asked Fields how much extra work this reporting and monitoring is for the fire chief.

“Right now? About five to six hours a week,” he said. “Back during the height of COVID? I spent more time doing that than the fire department.”

Ward 5 Councilor Brandee DuBois asked if this 8% raise over two years would get him closer to what the Oneida police chief makes.

“No,” Fields said. “Not even close. He makes $12,000 a year more than me and other benefits in the police contract that I don’t get.”

“And we’re asking you to do more,” Ward 4 Councilor Michelle Ironside Kinville mused. “I say you get it. That’s what I think.”

Comptroller Lee Ann Wells added that she and her department go to Fields daily regarding COVID-19 orders, updates, and information they need.

“And these rules are changing daily,” Kinville added.

Fields added that as it stands, his highest-paid employee makes more money than he does at the moment while he’s taking on more responsibilities.

Ward 6 Councilor and Deputy Mayor Tom Simchik said the city council is looking at all department head raises this year and wanted to make sure the city council could be comfortable budgeting.

“It’s not who’s deserving; it’s what we can afford,” Coulthart added.

Fields said he is and will continue to take on additional tasks for his department and the city’s safety — he’s just looking for a fair shake.

“I’m not looking for any recognition, just to be fairly compensated as all other employees have been.”

Over at the Parks and Recreation Department, the budget is very similar to last year’s, said Parks Director Luke Griff, who presented the department’s 2022 budget. The only difference is that money that was initially cut from programs due to COVID-19 is starting to make a comeback.

Other expenses the Department is looking at are expected to be covered by the American Rescue Plan funds.

Several ash trees in local Oneida parks need to come down that are infested with emerald ash borers, an invasive species. “These trees need to come down,” Griff said. “We took 10 down this year in Lincoln, and that was little over $11,000. And the reason is that the Department of Public Works can take down some of the trees, but once they get to a certain size, we need to contract it out.”

The schedule of expenses in the city budget lists the overall city tree contract at around $120,000.

Over at Veteran’s Field, 360 N. Main St., a large amount of work is planned, including $50,000 for new bleachers; $25,000 for a new fence; $50,000 for bathroom repairs; $50,000 for roof repairs; and $5,000 for fascia repair.

Facilities are outdated at Veteran’s Field, Griff said, with original designs being done somewhere in the 1970s. “I was going through my budget and found documents that said the last time the roof was replaced was in the 1980s. So it’s about time,” he said, adding that Veteran’s Field is an older park, and it really needs it. “This is a good opportunity to repair the park.”

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