Unified District Would Not Spread Debt or Dismantle Firehouses, Attorney-Firefighter Says

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong

Consolidating Philipstown’s four fire departments into a single, unified fire district would not spread bond debt or dismantle existing firehouses and their memberships, an attorney and firefighter told a packed room at Town Hall on Monday night (Nov. 15). 
       Mark C. Butler, who specializes in fire department-related law and has a long record as a firefighter, addressed a series of questions drafted by the pilot panel set up last July to study a possible merger of fire departments and ambulance services. At present, Cold Spring Fire Company No. 1, the Garrison Volunteer Fire Company, North Highlands Fire Department (also called North Highlands Engine Company No. 1), Continental Village Fire Department, Philipstown Volunteer Ambulance Corps, and Garrison Volunteer Ambulance Corps operate within Philipstown. Town officials are studying approaches to consolidating them that might save money, enhance training, pool personnel and equipment, and possible reap other benefits. “The Town Board has not made any decision on this,” Supervisor Richard Shea said at the meeting. “We’re gathering information. Learning what’s out there is really important.” He urged everyone to “keep an open mind.”
       One possible objection, already voiced in some quarters, is that consolidating departments would saddle Cold Spring residents with higher taxes to help pay off bonds or other debt incurred in a current fire district beyond the village, such as North Highlands, with a large, updated fire house or new equipment. Butler tried to lay that concern to rest. Should one fire district use a bond to underwrite a major expense, “that bond would not be spread over all the balance of the town taxpayers” in a new, unified district, he said. Only the residents of the former district that had incurred the debt would be required to pay it off, he said. “Residents of your [old] fire district are responsible for that bond. That debt cannot be spread out over everyone else,” except in a case where voters throughout the new district agreed to accept responsibility and higher taxes to assume the obligation, Butler emphasized. “Unless there is consent to be taxed that way, that special tax can’t apply.”
       When fire departments in a town and village consolidate, “what you see most frequently is the town is not paying the true percentage of costs” of fire-protection services, he said. In such a case, under a consolidation, “the town tax rate will go up and the village tax rate will go down.” The key is creation of efficiencies through consolidation, which should “flatten what rate variances there may be across the board.” Butler assured the audience that equipment and facilities, such as a firehouse, in use at the time of the merger, typically remain in place after consolidation. Ownership of equipment might be transferred to the new, consolidated district for purposes of maintenance and obtaining insurance, or the equipment could be leased to the new district, he said. “How do we allocate the value of that equipment? The issue of that equity, of that value, is one of the questions that have to be addressed.” He said that in consolidations the membership of existing fire houses usually remains the same. Overall, he added, “those assets would not change “¦ unless otherwise agreed upon.”   
       Each fire department could also continue to have its own chief, but “there has to be a chief of chiefs, a district chief,” in charge of the whole, consolidated district, Butler said. However, the position of “chief of chiefs” could be rotated among the chiefs of the fire departments making up the district, or be filled by election. “Next to money, I think that’s the most important question to get resolved,” he said. He also explained that unless the state legislature specifically allows it, a town cannot form its own fire department as such, although it can oversee creation of a town-wide fire district and contract with a fire district for services. The fire district would have its own commissioners, he said, although “it’s way too early” to determine how many a consolidated Philipstown-wide district would have.

LOSAP and ambulance corps
       Questions involving LOSAP, the Length of Service Award Program, a form of pension or deferred compensation for firefighters, also would have to be addressed, Butler said. He estimated it would cost $15,000 in legal fees to figure out how to deal with the separate departments’ LOSAP systems in a unified district. He suggested that one way would be to simply transfer the existing points accrued by a firefighter into the new district.
       Butler also referred to the difficulty of trying to incorporate ambulance services into a consolidated fire district. A fire district ambulance corps “can’t do third-party billing. It’s illegal,” in New York State, he said. Thus ambulance service costs met through billing would have to be covered through other means, such as tax money. Town Councilman (board member) John Van Tassel, a firefighter involved with the pilot panel, pointed out that the ambulance services in Philipstown currently receive “in excess of $300,000 from the town.” Van Tassel later told Philipstown.info that the initial idea was to bring the ambulance corps into a unified district as a way to help them in various capacities. ‘If it’s too complicated,” that approach might have to be reconsidered, he said.
       Butler observed that a new state law gives voters — even a relatively small number — more clout in forcing local jurisdictions to consolidate or even to dissolve. If 10 percent of registered voters in a jurisdiction sign a petition calling for such a change, their action can trigger a referendum, he said. He noted that at least one village opted recently to dissolve and merge into its surrounding town. “That changes the calculus for all of this” talk of consolidation, he said.
       Whatever the impetus, solutions to the challenges inherent in a consolidation can be found, Butler said.  “The issues are not uncommon in what we see across the state. The incredible shrinking tax dollar — that’s what’s driving so much of the current change, as jurisdictions everywhere begin “looking at how to do things faster, cheaper, better.” In Philipstown, he said, “you’re asking the right questions. These are challenges for you all. To do something town-wide is a collaborative process.”
       His remarks drew an audience of about 55, firefighters and interested residents, as well as Town Councilwomen Betty Budney and Barbara Scuccimarra, along with Van Tassel and Shea, and Cold Spring Trustees Chuck Hustis and J. Ralph Falloon, a firefighter on the town’s pilot study panel.


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