Five East Kingston firefighters stood at the back of the meeting room in full turnout gear, quietly listening to the discussion at a public hearing last week that might well determine the fate of their company. Their two trucks, their engines running, were parked outside. One firefighter looked barely college age (members can be recruited at 16). About halfway through the one-hour hearing, they got a call and left to respond. They returned shortly. Nothing serious, one shrugged.
The debate over the future of the East Kingston fire company, founded in 1949, ranges from getting its books in order up to and including dissolution and merger with Ulster Hose No. 5. These firefighters and many of their constituents in their six-mile coverage zone hard by the Hudson River are earnestly hoping to avoid this fate.
Though they won’t say so for the record, picking up coverage of an area three-quarters the size of the City of Kingston is not at the top of Ulster Hose’s busy agenda. As one High-Fiver put it, “We got a lot of irons in the fire.” For one thing, they want to add a wing on their firehouse on Albany Avenue.
In any event, the buck stops with town government. Ulster Town Supervisor Jim Quigley says the town is ultimately responsible for the health and safety of residents. Quigley, who presided over the public hearing at town hall last week, was quick to assure worried residents of East Kingston.
“We have a functioning fire department in East Kingston and that will continue,” he said. “On top of that, Ulster Hose No. 5 is on first dispatch. There is adequate protection.”
Their firehouse is on Main Street in the hamlet of East Kingston, and across from the former IBM country club. Several residents spoke passionately to the professionalism and the swift response times of their volunteers. At least one blamed “politicians and bean counters.” The supervisor said he’s heard such comments before.
A state Comptroller’s Office report made public three weeks ago noted that the town board has not had a signed contract with East Kingston for the last dozen years. Quigley took office for the first of three terms in 2010, meaning a bad situation he inherited was allowed to fester. The retired CPA was re-elected to a fourth term this year.
The state laid the blame squarely on Town Hall, to wit: “By not ensuring that the town has a valid contract with provisions for reviewing service providers’ operations, the town board has not fulfilled its oversight responsibility and may be putting town residents at risk of loss of property, life and finances.” Strong words, those.
Nobody at Town Hall is consciously putting anybody at risk here, said Quigley, who reported that his efforts to secure a contract with East Kingston had been futile. “We wrote the fire company in December of 2013 [about a contract] and didn’t get an answer until August of 2014,” Quigley said he told state auditors. “We wrote them again about overbilling last October,” just before the auditor’s report hit the fan.
A huge fund balance
We’re not talking small change here. According to the comptroller, the town board has, since former supervisor Nick Woerner’s last budget in 2010, appropriated just over $1 million for the department. The department, according to its federal tax returns, spent around $580,000 of that amount on firematic activities. The difference went into a departmental fund balance, which Quigley said stands at about $600,000.
That’s quite a nest egg for a department with an annual operating budget of around $150,000. The state comptroller recommends municipalities and school districts hold no more than 10 percent of budgets in reserve.
“If that had been one of my departments, I’d have reduced their budget by a like amount,” Quigley said. “In fact, this is all very embarrassing to me.” The supervisor has a reputation for having a keen eye for the bottom line. Acting on that experience, the town board reduced funding to East Kingston by 12 percent in the 2016 budget.
Quigley says the town wants a strategic plan for the fire district conducted by an outside consultant, much like those carried out for Spring Lake and Ulster No. 5 some seven years ago. Progress on that plan is being held up over differences in regard to a consultant.
With backup service in place, that prospect of dissolution seems unlikely in the near term, but the controversy speaks to larger issues.
“It’s about demographics,” Quigley said. “We’re a town that’s aging in place. The number of young people is decreasing. Every department is having problems with recruitment, training and retention.”
By “every department” Quigley could have been referring to the numerous volunteer fire companies in the county dealing with similar issues.
The times they are a-changin’. Not necessarily for the better.
A decade of complaints
Ulster officials also held a public hearing on an eyesore structure on Flatbush Avenue Extension on the north end of the town. Replete with boarded-up windows and junk cars in the yard, the long-abandoned house was once the home of former town supervisor (1978-87) Charlie Rider. Rider, for whom Rider Park on the Hudson is named, died in 2005.
After a decade of complaints from neighbors and numerous citations from the building department, town officials are considering taking title from a Rider descendant and demolishing the building. But first they’ll send in the highway department to clear out the exterior. On tap next week is a resolution that will petition state Supreme Court to condemn the property. Long-suffering neighbors can’t help but wish there were a better way.
Kids like Hein
Continuing the seemingly spontaneous build-up to the anticipated formal announcement of a Mike Hein bid for Congress after the holidays, another log was added to the fire last week with the enthusiastic endorsement of a little-known group called College Democrats of New York.