If the two boards vote in the affirmative, a special referendum to create the New Paltz Fire District could be on the ballot in November.
Firefighters in New Paltz say that their relationship with Village Hall has broken down to a point where they can only imagine moving forward as a district.
“Unfortunately, the Fire Department has been used as a political football between the town and the village,” said Tom Powers, the former president of the New Paltz Fire Company. Town Board members have a history of negotiating for months on end with the Village Board to even get the fire service contract signed and ready to go.
“Even though I’m no longer involved in the Fire Department, I’m totally for a fire district,” Powers added. “Right now, the line of communication isn’t there.”
Since the NPFD is run as a village department, the town buys their fire protection through a special contract with the village. Whether or not the town is paying its share is usually a keenly argued point between New Paltz’s two local governments.
If that isn’t bad enough, every time the village goes through an election cycle the firefighters have to worry about working with a whole new set of bosses. They never know what to expect -- a board that bends over backward to help them out, or one that proffers only cuts or spending freezes.
“If you look around in Ulster County, why is everyone else using a district?” the former fire president said.
Chief Dave Weeks did not immediately return a phone call asking for comment on this story.
Fire service in Gardiner and Highland
Nearby, in Gardiner and Highland, fire districts have been the norm for a long, long time.
According to Gardiner town historian Carleton Mabee, Gardiner hasn’t really known a modern era of fire service without using the district system. Right now, the majority of Gardiner is covered by the Gardiner Fire District, but part of the town is covered by the Wallkill-based Shawangunk Valley Fire District.
Both of the entities began in the 1950s, Mabee said.
What residents of Gardiner usually see, unless they’re attending all the fire district meetings, is a pre-determined budget line given to the Town Board each year.
“The Town Board has no input,” Gardiner Supervisor Joe Katz explained. “The only role that the town plays in the fire district is to collect the taxes. They are really, really independent of the town. They decide their own tax.”
Some people in New Paltz have expressed a worry that a fire district would be peopled by ex-firefighters and would have a bias that could lead to unchecked spending.
Supervisor Katz said he knows the Gardiner Fire District doesn’t work that way. While most of the fire commissioners come from an emergency service background, “they realize that they have to answer to the taxpayers.”
Overall, Katz said he felt that having a fire district system has been a really good thing for the town. “If we had to switch from that to a paid fire company, people don’t even realize what their taxes might be,” he added.
In the Town of Lloyd, the situation is approximately the same. Lloyd is served by Highland and Clintondale fire districts and a majority of the town supports that system.
In trying to make their case for a fire district to the town and village, New Paltz firefighters invited Highland fire Chief Daniel Bassanese and fire Commissioner John Fraino to speak on their behalf on Aug. 23.
“I deal directly with them,” Chief Bassanese said of the district’s commissioners, adding that he had an excellent relationship with them. “There’s clearly an accountability system that’s in place.”
Highland, like Gardiner, also has a long history with its fire districts, which date back to at least well before the 1970s.
Answering how the fire district system has impacted taxes in Highland or Gardiner is also pretty difficult -- they never had to make a switch in the way New Paltz potentially could.
New York State itself first allowed fire districts to be created by towns in 1932. But the situation that New Paltz finds itself in -- where a village fire department wants to switch over to a district -- is a relatively new phenomenon. State law didn’t change to allow that to happen until 1988, according to Dennis Michalski with the state Office of Emergency Management.
The mysterious fire house
One potential monkey wrench has emerged in the Fire Department’s quest to get voters to support a fire district. Plans for a new 14,000-square-foot stationhouse at the corner of North Putt Corners Road and Henry W. Dubois Drive were uncovered by former fireman Ray Lunati.
In his letter to the editor from Aug. 26, Lunati warns that “a New Paltz fire district won’t ensure better fire protection” but that it would increase taxes when the firehouse goes through.
At first glance, the mysterious firehouse seems ominous. It’s not on file at Town Hall, however the town Planning Board has discussed it. The only way to get a copy of those 2009 plans is to contact the Poughkeepsie-based architectural firm that drafted them.
Even more curious is that those plans weren’t paid for under the name of the town or of the village, but under the name of Joe Jurain, NPFD’s the third lieutenant.
But it turns out there’s a pretty solid explanation for all that mystery. The plans aren’t on file at Town Hall because they’re a draft plan only discussed with the Planning Board informally.
“The membership did draft plans for the firehouse,” Powers explained. In 2006, when the New Paltz Town Court and the Police Department were busy trying to solve their own space issues, the NPFD was originally a part of that discussion.
“That’s where the initial talk of the building began,” he said.
A new firehouse is needed because neither the downtown firehouse in the Village of New Paltz nor the one out in the town conform to OSHA safety standards. New Paltz firefighters had the plans drawn up themselves because they wanted to fundraise and try to get it built on their own.
None of that was part of the fire district discussion, which began even earlier. “The fire station was not part of the fire district,” Powers said. “It shouldn’t be joined together.”
Contrary to the implications of Lunati’s letter, if a new fire district were started, a new stationhouse isn’t necessarily guaranteed. It would have to go through a special referendum during a fire district meeting, which would be open to the public.
“It would be a long, drawn out process,” Powers said. “It’s much like the [middle] school.”
People who would like to speak out about the fire district should clear their schedules on Sept. 13. That night the town and village will hold a special public hearing on the fire district at 7 p.m. in the New Paltz Central High School auditorium.