It’s volunteers that keep the wheels of democracy turning and save your house from a raging inferno.
That was one of the main themes during the second lesson of Civics 101, a series of Thursday evenings hosted by the Woodstock Democratic Committee introducing people to the inner-workings of local government. On April 7, Woodstock Fire Commissioner Evan Holland, Fire Chief Kevin Peters, Onteora School Board President Kevin Salem and Library board President Jeff Collins explained the inner-workings of their organizations.
“I’m an interior firefighter, fire police rescue squad support, wildland search-and-rescue, ice search-and-rescue, but I’m here today as our fire commissioner,” said Holland. “We’d like everyone to know that the Woodstock Fire Department, which is your Woodstock Fire Department, is essentially all volunteer from the fire department chief and officers to both interior and exterior firefighters, the fire police to the emergency medical rescue personnel, the EMTs…the ambulance drivers, the specialized rescue teams to the Board of Fire Commissioners…We are all volunteers so that this incredibly essential 365 days a year, seven days a week, 24 hours a day organization operates at almost no cost to you, the homeowner, the taxpayer.”
Fire and emergency medical services cost the homeowner with a median-priced home of $412,000 about $469 per year, he said.
The Woodstock Fire District covers the administrative, legal, personnel and financial responsibilities and is run by the Board of Fire Commissioners. The Woodstock Fire Department, which covers the firehouses and firefighting activities, is run by Chief Kevin Peters and two assistant chiefs, Holland explained.
The Fire Department’s mission is to save lives, he said.
“And I’m going to say it’s a Herculean task. The geographical territory of this district covers 69 square miles from Zena to Woodstock to Wittenberg to Bearsville to Shady to Lake Hill to Willow and even to the front edges of Mount Tremper,” Holland said.
“And many times…in many places, it’s over difficult terrain. It’s over non-paved roads, it’s through really difficult-to-access driveways and properties surrounded by dense woodland and boggy marsh, which is why the Woodstock Fire Department is set up the way we are.”
The primary firehouse, known as Company 1, has the most volunteer members and the most apparatus and equipment. Company 5, known as the Rescue Squad, and Company 1, are strategically located near the center of town. Three satellite fire companies are in Wittenberg, Lake Hill and Zena.
“Woodstock consistently ranks among the fastest emergency call response times across all of New York State, and that’s measured by the National Fire Institute response safety team,” Holland said.
Each company firehouse operates in a strict, almost paramilitary organizational fashion, Holland explained. “We have a very strict chain of command. We have a very strict code of conduct, and that is critical for us to be effective.”
Each firehouse is run by line officers, a captain and three lieutenants. Individual firehouses’ administrative and community-based operations are run by a president, vice president, treasurer and secretary.
There are five elected fire commissioners in charge of the district and one is chair. One commissioner is elected each year at a town-wide vote the second Tuesday in December.
“When we’re asked who’s our watchdog, you’re our watchdog,” Holland said.
The only paid employees are the secretary-treasurer, physical plant manager, chief mechanic, district clerk and two per-diem paramedics who fill in when the need arises.
The district operates on a $1.656 million budget, which is mostly taxpayer-funded. The department also receives donations, for which Holland made a pitch.
“Safety is expensive folks. The costs for mine and every other interior firefighter’s full protective gear and equipment…which are boots, bunker pants, bunker jackets, gloves, hood and helmet and air pack runs approximately $5500, and that’s, I would say, money well spent,” he said.
The fire department has about 150 active members, though about 60 “handle the bulk of the action,” Holland said. “And when you hear about the action that we handle, I’m going to say that here’s a pitch…If you’re so inclined tonight after we speak, come see us come talk to us. We’d love to have you join us,” he added.
“In the middle of the night, when a team shows up at your property to put out the chimney fire, or at your door to handle a medical emergency, it’s us. We just jumped out of bed and ran to serve in the middle of that terrible ice and windstorm.”
Holland noted firefighters worked 60 hours straight during the recent ice storm to keep people safe.
“We’re your 20-something town worker. We’re your 40-something merchant, or my case, you’re a 67-year-old retiree. So if you’re inclined to volunteer, please come talk to us.”
Holland noted with a rising population over the past three years, there has been an exponential growth in the number of calls. From 2015-2019, Company 1, the primary firehouse, responded to an average of 450 calls a year. That rose to 520 calls in 2020 and 691 calls in 2021.
“And as of yesterday, 214 calls this year already, which will extrapolate into 812 for this year,” Holland said. “And when you include company five medical, were at 1298 responses, or more than three and a half a day.”
It’s not just fires, though. The Fire Department deals with vehicle accidents and medical calls every day. It also runs many community events throughout the year, including support for the Woman’s Grand Prix cycling race, Memorial Day parade, a car show in June, marching in the Saugerties July 4 parade and everyone’s favorite, the Volunteers Day fireworks in August.
The department also maintains pedestrian safety for the Woodstock Halloween parade and Christmas Eve program and puts on a Veterans Day craft fair.
“And we put on countless pancake breakfasts and chicken dinners for all to enjoy,” Holland said. “So other than you hearing and seeing our lights and sirens, we’re kind of a busy underbelly of the community.”
Becoming a firefighter, EMT takes commitment
Interior firefighters must take 129 hours of classroom training. EMTs require about 209 hours, plus time riding in the ambulance.
But it’s more than classroom training. Holland estimates about 600 hours of reading, plus continual training.
“If you don’t stay sharp, it’s not only the lives of the patients that we’re going to find. It’s our homeowners and your fellow firefighters. So it’s constant training. It builds great camaraderie and teamwork,” Holland said. “And while sometimes it seems difficult while you’re doing it, it’s all worth it and makes you feel like a million bucks.”
Board of Commissioners meetings are open to the public at the Company One firehouse, 242 Tinker Street, on the second Thursday of the month at 7:30 p.m.
Onteora School Board President Kevin Salem
Like most other boards and commissions, Onteora Board of Education trustees are unpaid. The exceptions are Albany, Buffalo, Rochester or Syracuse, where trustees receive a salary. The Onteora board has seven trustees who serve three-year terms that are staggered so the entire board is never replaced in one election.
“We are called trustees because we are overseers of the public trust,” said Kevin Salem, president of the Onteora Board of Education. “It’s something that is publicly owned and necessarily democratically available to everybody without the cost.”
Salem said one of the board’s primary responsibilities is to hire and evaluate the superintendent, a process they’re engaged in right now. The only other direct employee is the district clerk.
Trustees ratify collective-bargaining agreements, though day-to-day operations and employee interactions are the responsibility of the superintendent, who then reports to the board.
One of the goals of the board is to provide an educated electorate that can engage in local government and make changes.
“This is something that we have been sort of engaged in. I’ve been on the board seven years. At least five of those years have been spent with laser focus on that,” Salem said. “Civics is one of those things that we see as a mechanism for achieving that. So with regard to civics education, we have established an at-large civics specialist and one of our fifth-grade teachers was one of the 17 people who crafted the civics curriculum for New York state,” he said.
In New York State, civics is not a required class until one is a Senior, so the Onteora School Board is trying address that by extending student government to as early as fourth grade. “Our at-large civics specialist goes into the elementary schools and works on them with local history matters,” Salem said.
But teaching students to become engaged members of society has its challenges when there are fewer students in the district. “For sure, one of our areas of focus right now is declining enrollment. Twenty, 25 years ago, we had twice as many students as we have now. We have about 1160 students here,” he said. “Schools needs students and communities needs schools. So that is one of our areas of focus.”
Part of the challenge is the large geographical area. The district covers 300 square miles.
Some students ride the bus for 75 minutes a day.
The Onteora School Board meets the first and last Tuesday of the month and rotates the location through Woodstock and Phoenicia Elementary schools and the middle/high school.
Woodstock Public Library Board president Jeff Collins
“So the mission of a public library is based in democracy. It is based on the understanding that knowledge should be available to everyone,” Collins said. “So that’s what we do. We make knowledge available to the public. And it’s as simple as that. The knowledge comes in the form of books, it comes in the form of seminars, it comes in the form of meeting people and it comes in the form of civic engagement and civic activities.”
But it wasn’t always that way. Access to knowledge was reserved for the elite. Public libraries were formed to make knowledge accessible to everyone, he said.
The Woodstock Library district is one of four types of libraries in New York State.
There are private libraries, funded by people donating money to keep it open. Woodstock’s library was private when it was first formed.
School district libraries are run by the local school district. Municipal libraries are run by the city, village or town, such as the New York Public Library system in New York City.
Woodstock’s library is a public district library, which was formed by a bill passed in the state Legislature.
The library, in much the same way as the fire district, is its own taxing agency. As Collins was quick to point out, the library tax is the smallest number on one’s tax bill. The taxes are collected by the town, then the town sends payment to the library. This year’s budget is $684,193.94 and is mostly funded through $596,893.94 in taxes.
There are 11 trustees who are elected to staggered terms during an October election, when voters also decide on the budget.
Collins answered some questions about the May 10 bond vote which, if approved, will be used to purchase the former Miller/Howard Investments building on Dixon Avenue for $3.95 million and move the Woodstock Library there.
“The library itself is an old farmhouse that has been cobbled together with additions over years and years and years, and if you look at the roof structure and climb up on the roof, you’ll see that there are valleys in the roof,” he said. “You never want a valley in a roof. That’s just a bad, bad idea. If you crawl into the crawlspace, you’ll see that there’s that much room in the crawlspace,” Collins said, holding his fingers out to represent a tiny space.
He noted the building was tested last year and there are areas that only support 16 pounds per square foot when a library needs to hold 150 pounds per square foot by law because of the weight of book stacks.
“So we don’t even satisfy the state code for the library building should be. In fact, we filed with the state this last year saying we do not provide adequate services for a library building,” he said.
Civics 101, session 3 is April 14
The six-part series is intended to educate voters, regardless of political affiliation, about government and its leaders. The next session in the series of Civics forums will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 14 at the Mescal Hornbeck Community Center, 56 Rock City Road, Woodstock, and will focus on Ulster County Government, with County Executive Pat Ryan and Woodstock county legislator, Majority Leader Jonathan Heppner.
Q&A will follow and video of the sessions will be available on YouTube and other platforms.
Future sessions will be held on Thursdays, April 21, April 28, and May 5 and will feature Ulster County Comptroller March Gallagher, Ulster County Sherriff’s Office Lieutenant Chad Storey, Ulster County Clerk Nina Postupack, Ulster County Board of Elections Commissioner Ashley Dittus, State Senator Michelle Hinchey, State Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, as well as a representative from the office of Senator Charles Schumer, Megan Glander.
For more information, see the Woodstock Democratic Committee’s Facebook page.