Based on the questions that were asked at the April 14 informational meeting, residents of New Paltz may be receptive to creating a joint fire district that covers the entire town, including the village within it. For that process to move forward would still require cooperation among members of the town and village boards, but not necessarily a ballot referendum, according to Terence Hannigan, an attorney who specializes in fire protection issues. Hannigan was at Village Hall to explain the technical steps to create a joint fire district, as well as the expected benefits to residents and firefighters.
Right now, fire protection throughout New Paltz is provided by the village fire department, which Hannigan said is the “oldest style in the country,” dating back to the days before the City of New York consolidated. Towns cannot have fire departments, so those New Paltz residents living outside the village are within a town-created fire protection district, and the Town Board contracts with the village fire department to protect those homes. It’s an ironic system, because most of the members of the village fire department live in that fire protection district, rather than the village itself. Wrangling over which government should be responsible for what amounts of money has at time become quite political and is complicated by the law requiring the firefighters to respond to emergencies at the college. Those occasional dust-ups impact the human resources of the fire department, the people actually showing up to put out fires. Hannigan estimated that each volunteer firefighter would cost $100,000 if the department were instead made up of paid personnel.
Under the fire department model, firefighters are members of a fire company, and nominate their own officers, which must be approved by the Village Board, along with the departmental budget. The fire company can and does raise funds, but not for big purchases such as trucks and equipment, which is why the fire chief must submit a budget to that body. Hannigan referred to the structure as “classic taxation without representation” for the residents of the fire protection district, as well as a budgeting challenge for the Village Board, which faces increasing pressure from Albany to keep increases under two percent annually.
A joint fire district, if created, would be run by an unpaid board of fire commissioners, who would be responsible for preparing budgets, approving officers and overseeing everything from training to the length of service awards program, which provides payments which are sometimes likened to a pension. The commissioners would have to take training in how to administer a fire district, but having firefighter experience would not be a requirement to stand for election, although candidates would have to reside in the district. Initial commissioners could be selected by election or appointment by the Town Board. The terms would normally be five years, but the original ones would be staggered so that there would be an election every year. Such commissioners would be able to focus solely on fire protection issues, rather than the wide array of problems which demand the attention of Village Board members.
When this idea was proposed in 2010, Hannigan said, he believed that a ballot referendum was the only way to create a district. However, he has since discovered a different path, one that has its own complexities. In that scenario, the Village Board would petition the state legislature to lift the obligation on the village to have a fire department. The Town Board would have to dissolve its fire protection district and pass a resolution creating a fire district within the town’s borders. The Town Board’s role is the same it would have if there was no fire protection present; a ballot referendum is not needed to create a fire district under those circumstances, only a permissive referendum, which allows residents to force a ballot vote if they gather a significant number of signatures asking for one. On paper, the Village Board’s part is relatively easy, because typically non-controversial local legislation like this sails through the state Senate and Assembly. Just last session, though, a bill to allow Marbletown’s board to move its public meetings to a location about 50 feet beyond the town line failed to reach the floor for a vote, showing that there would still be procedural hurdles to clear in Albany.
“It’s like the difference between divorce and annulment,” Hannigan said.
Fire districts are governments, which comes with the power to tax and then borrow money. The initial budget for the district would be calculated by means of a state-mandated formula, and thereafter the district would be subject to the tax cap legislation. Like all local governments, the commission could exceed the cap if the budget is passed by a supermajority. Unlike school districts, the public would not get to vote to approve the fire district budget under any circumstances, only the commissioners themselves, who would stand for election in December. However, fire commissions must hold a public hearing on that budget on the third Tuesday of October. Commissioners would take over much of the administrative work now performed by the fire chief.
There are other laws which do not impact fire districts at all, though, such as the ones governing PILOTs, payments in lieu of taxes, when a county Industrial Development Agency negotiates with a business to provide tax breaks, as happened with the Park Point dormitory project. According to Hannigan, IDAs were never given the authority to negotiate with fire districts, so if a PILOT was hammered out, the owner would still get a tax bill for fire protection.
Most of the questions focused on technical aspects and did not suggest opposition to the idea itself. The Village Board, would have to ensure that the LOSAP (length of service awards program) payments were up-to-date before the fire district took them over, and the existing trucks that are being paid for would be leased by the village to the fire district. No matter which route to creating a fire district is taken, there would be no interruption of protection service to any resident. If one board fails to do its part, the other could petition to get the question on the ballot regardless. The fire district would not be able to levy tax upon the many tax-exempt properties in the village.
While more public information sessions have been promised, the arena for these discussions now moves to the village and town boards, which, along with members of the existing fire department, will work out the best way forward, or even if a fire district will be considered.