[gplayer href=” http://oracle.newpaltz.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/Alter-Noshfar-Mason-News-Story-Audio.mp3″ ] Listen to an EXCLUSIVE Radio Story – By Maxim Alter and narrated by Kelli Noshfar [/gplayer]
The New Paltz Fire Department has recently pushed to become a joint fire district, causing conflict rooted in financial concerns among town and village residents.
Although the Village Board of Trustees oversees the operation of the New Paltz Fire Department, both town and village government officials recently met in a public hearing on Sept. 13 to discuss the creation of a unified fire district, which would encompass all of New Paltz.
According to First Assistant Fire Chief Kevin Maguire, who gave a presentation at the hearing, if the district were created, a board of fire commissioners would be given sole responsibility for long-term management of the fire district. Board members would be elected by a vote from both the town and the village, hold five-year terms that would not be compensated and would be required by law to receive standardized training in fire district management within 270 days of taking office.
Maguire said town residents currently have no elected representation on fire service matters since the Village Board of Trustees governs the fire department. With a board of fire commissioners and the establishment of a fire district, Maguire said the taxpayers would benefit.
“Some years the village maintains the majority of fire calls and some years the town maintains the majority,” he said. “It’s a wash across the board. So shouldn’t the opinions of all the taxpayers have equal weight in any decisions regarding the fire department? I believe so.”
The board would also control the fire department’s budget. However, if the fire district were created, the department, by law, could not increase their budget for two years. Once that period has ended, the budget could be raised due to the purchase of new equipment and facilities.
Thomas Nyquist, former mayor of New Paltz, said at the hearing that he is aware of the volunteer firefighters’ needs but forming a joint fire district in today’s economic climate is not the appropriate decision.
“We are living in the most difficult financial times in the modern history of the United States,” he said. “Many people across our nation are in danger of losing their homes and we see within our own community a growing number of for sale signs posted on the lawns of friends and neighbors. We certainly don’t need an additional unit of government locally.”
According to Maguire, the board of fire commisioners is something the fire department needs instead of village government representation. Because of disputes between the village and town boards and the numerous budget freezes put in place, the Fire Department’s members have slowly declined from about 70 members to the low 30s.
Village Mayor Terry Dungan said the fire department’s complaints of the budget freezes are valid and are caused by financial disagreements between the town and the village.
Currently the town and the village each pay about half the cost of the fire department. Because of a dispute over payments and contracts between the town and the village, Dungan said the fire departments spending has been restricted and frozen in the past.
“It’s very aggravating for [the fire department] to have to go through this,” Dungan said. “If they were a district, it would not be possible to have this kind of political game playing interfering with their operations.”
According to Dungan, the approximate total of the fire department’s budget this year was $553,000, which includes payments on a new truck. If the department went district, Dungan said village residents would only pay about 25 percent of the budget as opposed to the 50 percent they pay now.
Dungan said this decrease in payment is because the tax is based on assessed evaluation and the town’s assessed evaluation is three times that of the village.
“For village residents, it would actually be a saving,” he said. “It would be a fifty percent cut in the cost of fire service initially. If the budget goes up, which I expect it will, the budget would have to double to bring village residents back to the level they’re currently paying.”
Town Supervisor Toni Hokanson said she estimates not only a drop in the village’s fire department tax, but also a slight reduction to the taxes paid by the town residents outside the village.
Hokanson said this would occur because there are properties – or taxable parcels – in the town and village that are at a higher assessed value and are not currently paying anything towards the fire department’s taxes. If the department went district, the owners of these parcels would begin paying the tax. When more parcels are added, the balance between the payments from town and village residents changes.
Town resident John Logan said at the public hearing that the fire department should refrain from going district because their current system already works.
“We have a good going operation and there is no point in throwing out what works,” Logan said. “Some people might want to do it to save a few dollars in village taxes, but we’re sill going to pay and the price is going to go up and up and up.”
In order for the fire department to become a joint fire district, the Town Board and the Village Board of Trustees would have to agree that there is merit for the public to continue looking at the process. If that is agreed upon, Dungan said both boards would have to call a referendum, which would give the decision of forming a joint fire district to the public.
Dungan said he hoped to have voters in New Paltz see a special ballot initiative for a fire district on Election Day in November, but because state law mandates the referendum from the town must be held within 60 to 75 days after their decision to hold the referendum is made, that won’t be possible.
“[This is] creating another taxing entity, creating another layer of government and fundamentally changing the system of government by creating another board that is subject to public election,” Dungan said. “The people should be directly involved in making that decision.”