“We’re very happy,” New Paltz Fire Department (NPFD) Chief Dave Weeks said. “We were hoping that we could get it in the eyes of the public.”
Right now, the Fire Department is run by the village government, but it contracts out service to the Town of New Paltz. The two governments voted Monday night to set up a Sept. 13 public hearing on creating a unified fire district for all of the New Paltz.
If a district were created, the fire chief would report to a panel of elected commissioners instead of the Village Board. That board would work with the chief to set the yearly fire budget.
Village Trustee Robert Feldman, himself a former firefighter, said he didn’t know if anyone would be talking about a fire district at all if there was a better working relationship between Village Hall and the NPFD.
“I think that it’s a shame that it’s gotten to the point that it has,” Feldman said, adding that it didn’t sound like the Fire Department was willing to back down on its desire for a district. “I think we should pass this resolution and be done with it.”
New Paltz firefighters typically answer 700-800 fire calls each year -- and those take place in the village, at SUNY New Paltz and in the town. Because of the way that village is reimbursed by the town, firefighters have to record in which of those three zones an emergency takes place, which adds to the paperwork and stress of an already burdened group of volunteers, the chief said.
Of the 31 firefighters, only about 15 have all the necessary training done to legally enter a structure fire and have no conflicts with work or other commitments. That means a lot of work falls to a small group of volunteers. New Paltz also gets more calls than neighboring Highland, has fewer volunteers and has a smaller budget.
When town Supervisor Toni Hokanson heard those stats, she said: “It sounds like we’re killing you.”
One firefighter in the back of the crowd had only a one-word answer to that. “Yup,” he said.
Mayor Terry Dungan admitted that state mandates have made the delivery of fire power more complex -- which is something the Fire Department has latched onto in their quest to get a district. Fire officials say that with a district, commissioners will have more of a clear focus and mandate by considering only fire -- instead of the full slate of village politics.
John Fraino is a commissioner in the neighboring Highland Fire District. He said that as a commissioner, they act as a check and balance on the chief’s initial budget. They double check figures and ask questions. But the single focus does help.
“I’m not distracted by politics,” Fraino said. “We are talking about the business of running a fire department.”
On the other hand, some people in New Paltz are worried about adding another government entity into the mix. Mayor Dungan said he’d already heard from people who are worried that a fire district will mean a board peopled by ex-firemen with a mind to dole out anything the chief wants.
Potentially, if the public hearing goes ahead without much of a hitch, voters in New Paltz could see a special ballot initiative for a fire district on Election Day in November.
For town Councilman David Lewis, who voted against setting up a public hearing for a fire district, said the suddenness of that potential vote was something that gave him pause.
Lewis said he’d also voted no because he thought it was wrong to move forward with the potential creation of a new government body when both the town and village were currently studying options for shared services and consolidation.
The public hearing will occur on Monday, Sept. 13 at 7 p.m., but town and village officials have yet to settle on a location. Because they’re expecting a large crowd for the public hearing, the two local governments wanted to see if the New Paltz Central High School auditorium might be available.