K&J – Creating a Municipal Fire District In New York

(Rebroadcast from March 6th, 2014) It turns out there are public officials in our region who have been discussing the concept of creating a joint fire district between local towns and villages in the Adirondacks for more than 8 or 9 years…  and on Wednesday evening, that discussion took one more step towards reality… before the meeting begins, Harrietstown Councilman Ron Keough is seated at a table just inside the Town Hall Auditorium where he’s asking everyone to sign in… Harrietstown Supervisor Bob Bevilacqua was also at the check in table… He says the Town sponsored the event because they wanted to hold an informational meeting on the possibility of creating a fire district because they had questions about creating a fire district.. and some of the answers they were receiving were conflicting..  So they’ve invited Mark Butler… a Lawyer who concentrates his practice in Fire and Rescue Law..  Mark’s Practice is generally statewide and he teaches regularly in the Fire Department of New York..

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So here’s a question… What is a Fire District…  well.. It’s a political subdivision of the state.. there are actually only four subdivisions that can manage fire prevention in New YorkState..  Villages, Towns, Cities and then Fire Districts are the only four entities who can become authorities with jurisdiction..

K&J – 030614 – Mark Butler on Fire Districts in New York State

The shifting of responsibility is two fold – not only the responsibility and the authority for managing the department but it also includes the taxing authority…  Interestingly, the boundaries of a fire district are not constrained by boundaries that already exist.. they could be the same, or not…  and even if this conceptual district were to use the same lines as the school, this district would cover the largest area in New YorkState.. and all of the taxpayers inside that district would pay the same taxe rate to support fire and emergency services protection to support the operation of the fire company and the delivery of emergency services under the umbrella of the fire district…  Mark says one of the benefits is that everybody pays the same tax rate.. an equalized rate regardless of where you live in the fire district..

Village Trustee Allie Pelliteiri suggested that he could be interested in identifying ways for the Village and other participating entities to appoint commissioners for the district, rather than having another election in the district every December… The key point there is that the Municipal entities, if they were to retain the right to appoint the commissioners would also retain the associated liability..  On the other hand, Allie’s point was more in line with making sure that there was going to be municipal and public oversight of the district..  North Elba Councilman Jack Favro has been actively participating in Fire Prevention for most of his adult career..

The meeting was well attended by members of local fire departments, especially the Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department, as well as public officials from the surrounding region, including Tupper Lake Trustee Rick Donah who says he came over to the meeting to listen…

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And when it comes to the Fire District’s Responsibilities…  What is it that a fire district would actually do…   as opposed to the current setting, with village oversight, or an alternative such as a town or city managing the fire companies..  Mark says it become the Municipal entity which becomes responsible for providing fire and emergency protection services within the whole of the fire district..

When it comes to budgets, the statutory cap on expenditures that applies to municipalities, the villages and the towns in New YorkState also applies to fire district spending.. but the interesting piece is that the first budget that is created then becomes the most important budget because it’s after that first budget when the tax cap begins to apply…  interestingly, in a fire district, all bonding must be approved by the voters.. which is different from most municipalities..  The only thing a district can do is anticipate tax revenue with a short term loan, and borrow from a state agency which provides low interest loans to districts for apparatus for equipment and for building improvements and replacement..

So lots of answers – and one thing that we saw was another layer of bureaucracy but in this case with just one focus.. on fire protection for the district and emergency services.. either way, it’s a step by step process and in this case.. we’re technically not even at step one yet…  Just in the informational stages – to answer questions and identify where to go from here.. one answer may be for a committee to take a hard look at the fire budget and see where it may end up, so that public officals can answer that age old question… Will it save the taxpayers money in the long run???

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