Even strong supporters of the fire district, like Ed Burke, felt that the public deserved to know exactly how fire district commissioners would be selected -- if they’d be elected from a general pool or if they’d represent only certain neighborhoods.
He also wanted to know what, if any, benefits do the unpaid firefighters get. With all that, Burke thought maybe the Village Board had pinched pennies a bit too far with the New Paltz Fire Department.
“This is not a group that should be nickel and dimed to death,” he said.
Former mayor Tom Nyquist, who was careful to note that he did support the firefighters, said “nonetheless, I’m opposed at this time” to creating a fire district.
“We certainly don’t need a new unit of government locally,” Nyquist said. “Currently, we are clawing our way out of the worst recession since the Great Depression.”
Worries of cost weren’t the only rock in the shoe of firefighters looking for a district. Their mission to change how the NPFD is governed -- right now the Village Board calls all the shots -- has rubbed people who want New Paltz’s governments to unify into a single town or city the wrong way.
Right now, a special committee to study consolidation and shared services is meeting to discuss how New Paltz might change. They’re a few months into a process that could take about a year.
According to Sally Rhoads, who spoke for the government efficiency committee, one thing they’re thinking about is if the Fire Department should become a district.
“That’s one of the areas that we’re certainly exploring and going to explore,” Rhoads said. “But we are a long way from being done with that study.”
The consolidation group has asked that the NPFD, the town and village call a “moratorium” on discussing a fire district until that study has been completed.
Right now, the Fire Department is a village department. Town residents get their fire protection through the village, and periodically that contract is renewed -- usually with a lot of back and forth from the two municipalities.
During Monday’s meeting, town and village board members squabbled over that contract. Village Trustee Shari Osborn said the town had not yet paid its share of the fire money. Town Supervisor Toni Hokanson countered that the village had not yet billed them.
Tom Powers, the former president of the fire company, said he thought too many people in the public had a false perception that a fire district is essentially a fraternity-style organization. A commissioned chaired by, for and with the interests of firefighters.
Powers said that he didn’t think most firefighters, were they to get on the commission, would be willing to shoot themselves in the foot by spiking their own taxes. “They pay their taxes as well,” he said.
Nothing in the setup of a fire district says that only firefighters will get elected. And in a town as politically motivated as New Paltz, just about anybody is bound to run.
Former Deputy Mayor Patrick O’Donnell, who also supports the creation of a district, said he thought fire service had outgrown its village headquarters. New Paltz firefighters now answer calls at SUNY New Paltz and into the far out reaches of the town. “It’s no longer just a village department,” he said.
State laws and federal laws on fire protection also change rapidly, which the Village Board might not always know. According to O’Donnell, the Village Board had not had any serious long-term planning discussions on the Fire Department, nor where they trained in fire law.
Many times the village trustees would vote on cost of an item alone -- not what the Fire Department needed -- and they often voted on fire equipment without understanding what it did, the former deputy mayor said.
John Logan, another former Village Board member who served in the 1970s, couldn’t disagree with O’Donnell more.
As a village department, the NPFD has given “100 years of excellent fire protection,” Logan said. “I don’t think you should lightly throw out a system that has worked so long.”
Logan said he couldn’t imagine a situation in which taxes wouldn’t go up in a district-based system.
But on the other side of that issue, the ex-fire president Powers said he thought the taxpayers might end up saving money. The village’s rate of workman’s compensation is pretty high, and a fire district might lower those costs.
“Another thing we seem to miss out on is that a lot of districts seem to get grants and the village fire departments seem to get passed over,” he said.
Village resident Don Kerr said he thought the problems with the Fire Department and Village Hall were solvable.
“This is a people problem,” Kerr said. He chastised the Village Board for not being able to get along with the firefighters -- a relationship that’s gotten so messy lately that the ranks of firemen have shrunken from about 70 to something like 30.
“You’re paid to do a job,” Kerr reminded the Village Board, adding that they should learn to get along with the firefighters before ditching the old system for a fire district.
New Paltzian David Lent agreed.
“I think that the real problem is the personalities on our board,” Lent said, urging people to solve their own problems with the Village Board come Election Day. “An election could resolve that.”
One issue that hasn’t gotten too much exposure until now popped up during the hearing. Town residents -- including the firefighters themselves, of whom 80 percent live in the town -- have no say in how the village runs its fire services.
“We have taxation without representation,” Supervisor Hokanson said.
Town and village board members voted to close the public hearing, but they’ll still take written comments or questions until Monday, Sept. 27.
It now appears unlikely that the fire district will make it to the ballot by November. According to Terry Hannigan, the lawyer for the Fire Department, “that’s not going to happen. It’s not physically or legally possible.”
If a referendum were set up, it would have to take place during a special election later on, he added.