The creation of a joint fire district for the town and village of New Paltz will be a point of discussion again, starting with a presentation at Village Hall on April 14 at 7 p.m. Terence Hannigan, of the Albany-based Hannigan Law Firm PLLC, will make a presentation and lead a discussion, but this isn’t the first time that reorganizing how fire safety is handled in New Paltz has been brought up. The last time a fire district was proposed was in 2010, during the height of the push to consolidate the two governments.
Fire protection is a complicated thing to administer in New Paltz. The fire department is part of the village government, but handles calls throughout the entire town. Towns are not actually permitted under law to have a fire department, so instead, both the town government and SUNY New Paltz are supposed to pay the village in proportion to the amount of emergency calls to that particular area. The result is a tremendous amount of paperwork for volunteer firefighters to track where the calls take place and a fire department that has looked more like a political football from time to time.
The last push for a fire district in 2010 was preceded by no small amount of acrimony. The village was in the throes of the Great Recession, and then-mayor Terry Dungan had laid down a rule that he must approve all expenditures — budgeted or not — before they happened. When it came to the fire department, this led to backlash such as residents complaining that firefighters should not have to request permission for each bottle of water they buy to hand out to thirsty volunteers manning the hoses. For his part, Dungan maintained that part of the problem was that the town wasn’t paying its share of the fire bills timely; at one joint meeting, then-town supervisor Toni Hokanson claimed that the village was failing to properly invoice the town for those expenses.
Fire districts are the state-approved way for towns to provide this essential service. The district is governed by a board of fire commissioners, who are elected by residents of the district, and set its budget. The commissioners have the power to levy a tax, which is collected through the town and appears on the annual property tax bill. At the pubic hearing held on September 13, 2010, it was explained that a fire district would eliminate the complex record-keeping and political bickering which has hampered the village department in the past.
At that time, not everyone was convinced. “I don’t think you should lightly throw out a system that has worked” for a hundred years, said John Logan, who had served on the Village Board in the 1970s. Former town supervisor David Lent observed that the problems were actually political, and suggested that residents “solve their problems on election day.”
Others spoke in support of a district, including Patrick O’Donnell, who had served on the Village Board and in the fire department. He said that the Village Board lacked the fire knowledge needed to thoughtfully review the department’s budget. Fire commissioners must take standardized training in fire district management once they are elected.
Another concern, that of cronyism, was dismissed by Tom Powers, who noted that, “They pay their taxes as well.” Fire district elections are not held in conjunction with any other vote, so the turnout tends to be light. During the lead-up to the public hearing, Dungan expressed concern that the commission would be populated by ex-firefighters that would rubber-stamp any wish list presented by the chief. In the intervening years, New York State has implemented a property tax cap that restricts how much any municipality or special district can increase taxes from one year to the next, including fire districts.
Ultimately, the last attempt to create a joint fire district was a victim of bad timing. Creating what is essentially a new layer of government while the town and village were studying whether or not New Paltz could be run with a single set of elected officials proved a tough pill to swallow. According to one article at the time, “The consolidation group has asked that the NPFD, the town and village call a ‘moratorium’ on discussing a fire district until that study has been completed.”
Those consolidation efforts were effectively nixed when the proposed plan was discovered to be in violation of state law. Because the co-terminus plan was in itself controversial, attempts to get the state Senate and Assembly to pass a law allowing the merger to proceed didn’t get the support it needed, and the whole issue quietly died. Absent that backdrop, the new effort may result in a different outcome.
In order for a fire district to become a reality, both the Town Board and Village Board must hold public hearings on the question, after which it could be brought to the voters this November.
Fire chief Kevin Maguire did not return calls for comment in time for this story.