A Cold Spring trustee advised his colleagues on Tuesday (Nov. 23) that as Philipstown explores fire department consolidation, the village faces pending decisions that could pit the Cold Spring Fire Company against taxpayers.
At a workshop session with Mayor Seth Gallagher and Trustees Bruce Campbell and Charles Hustis (with Trustee Airinhos Serradas absent), Trustee J. Ralph Falloon outlined the steps ahead as the Town of Philipstown ponders combining four fire departments into a new, unified fire district. A professional firefighter and former chief of the Cold Spring Fire Company, Falloon chairs a pilot group established last summer by the Philipstown Town Board to study a merger. Should the Town Board decide to pursue consolidation, Cold Spring officials would have to choose whether to participate — even if the Cold Spring Fire Company opposes consolidation.
“At some point it’s going to be a big decision for us, based on our fire department that we have to consider and our tax base that we have to consider” and weighing “facts, figures, and what’s best for everybody,” Falloon said, emphasizing the word everybody.
Not everyone agrees
He explained that a town-wide district “has to be approved by the Village of Cold Spring, Village of Nelsonville, North Highlands Fire District, and Town Board. Some political hurdles are that if any one of those entities do not want to be part of it, it won’t work or it will have to go in another direction.”
He noted that the Cold Spring Fire Company (CSFC) recently rejected the idea of a smaller fire district encompassing Cold Spring, Nelsonville, and nearby sections of Philipstown. “We as the [Village] Board said last year we would support them in whatever they do,” he recalled. By a 2-vote margin, the fire company “decided they don’t want to be part of the district” and “wanted to remain a municipal fire department under our control,” he said, underscoring our.
Now the issue is back on the table. “So there’s the potential for some friction there. They’re assuming that we said we’ll support them in anything they do. We decided we would support them in that [smaller district] venture. This is a different one.”
He recommended ongoing discussion with the fire company as talk of consolidation grows. “It’s out there now,” Falloon said. A lecture on consolidation, given by a lawyer-firefighter, filled the meeting room at Town Hall on Nov. 15. “There were a lot of great questions,” Falloon observed.
Consolidation being studied
Consolidation is being studied both by the pilot group and by a consultant, conducting an analysis funded by a grant. Falloon mentioned insurance as an example of a topic under the pilot panel’s scrutiny. The group members “are doing the fact-finding, digging and trying to see where the numbers went and why they went that way and what the numbers would be if you were a consolidated district,” he said. “There’s a lot of overhead we think could be cleaned up.”
“I guess when all the information comes out, then everybody gets to make their decision,” Falloon told the Village Board. “We’re asking everybody to just listen and keep an open mind. But there are a lot [of questions] to think about, and we should be thinking about them now.”
Eventually, as a Village Board, “we’ll have to make those hard decisions. If the fire department is still against it, do we go against them for potential betterment of the future of the taxpayers? Or do we say, `our village fire department wants to stay alone and we’ll back them?’ ”
Consolidation involves questions of money on several levels.
Falloon said that currently, Cold Spring’s fire department brings in $70,000 for providing fire protection to Nelsonville and parts of Philipstown. That income could easily disappear if the rest of the town formed a fire district and Cold Spring chose to go its own way, he said.
Also, with new legal mandates forcing fire departments to upgrade trucks and other equipment regularly, maintaining a go-it-alone village fire department could put a heavy burden on village taxpayers, he said. “Every single piece of gear in the fire company is going to have to be replaced. There are big, huge costs.”
Conversely, a town-wide consolidated district might help Cold Spring acquire a new fire house. “If we could get the whole district to build it, then the whole district would vote and you would spread out the tax base,” Falloon said.
He pointed out that voters in other parts of Philipstown might reject such a measure. But even if the village built a fire house on its own, if Cold Spring belonged to a consolidated district, the district would pay rent for use of the fire house, he said. Likewise, he told the board, village taxpayers would not end up funding structures completed elsewhere before a consolidation. “You would not be paying for the North Highlands fire house. You would not be paying for the Garrison fire department. You would only be paying for fire service.”
According to Falloon, consolidation also raises issues of control among some firefighters. “They don’t want to give up control, but when it comes to the taxpayers, they — the taxpayers — are kind of tired of everybody spending their money.” That means “we have taxpayers and we have the fire department that we’re going to have to deal with. When the numbers are out there, we’ll have to make that decision. Obviously, we don’t want to go against our village fire department. But unfortunately, this thing is bigger than just them.”
Before Falloon’s presentation, a Putnam County official briefed the board on another emergency-services option: participating in a free, state-sponsored alert system to notify residents of emergencies and important weather or local developments, such as sudden street closings or flooding.
Under the program, NY Alert, residents can sign up to receive urgent notices from state, county and local governments, with the messages delivered through telephone land lines, fax, cellular-mobile phones, e-mail, Twitter, and similar electronic means.
Putnam County participates, and if Cold Spring decided to connect as well, “we would be your broker and try to get things done for you,” Thomas Lannon, county director of emergency management, told the Village Board. Long-standing means of reaching citizens in an emergency, such as calls to those listed in a phone book, no longer work well, he said. “As more and more people go to cell phones” and avoid land-line telephones, “we’re really losing them.”
The local version of NY Alert works well in a coherent community such as Cold Spring, he said. “I think you are lucky. You’re a village and you’re smaller,” making it easier to reach everyone. “It’s pretty simple. It works pretty well. And it’s free. You guys control it and you can send your messages out.”
He added that while residents get important village information, village officials do not automatically know who has signed up and who has not.
Board members suggested such a system could have been useful last summer when the village imposed water-usage restrictions but could not immediately inform everyone. Some residents do not have computers or electronic addresses set up to receive the village’s e-mail blasts, which inform residents of both urgent matters and routine events, such as board meetings. Also, even if the village provides urgent notices to the weekly newspaper, days can go by before the paper reaches readers — and not all residents subscribe to it. After Lannon left, the board informally agreed to pursue connecting with NY Alert. “We just have to figure out how to do it,” Mayor Seth Gallagher commented. “I’ll figure out how,” Falloon promised.
Forge Gate petition
In other business, the mayor distributed copies of a petition, signed by 68 residents of Constitution Drive and the Forge Gate apartments, opposing a possible street link to tie the Boulevard to Lunn Terrace; it also objected to a possible move to open Forge Gate, a private complex, to more traffic.
Given possible development of the former Marathon property on Kemble Avenue and increased tourism to the West Point Foundry and old Campbell estate, the draft Cold Spring Comprehensive Plan urges the village to consider several actions. Among other tentative proposals, the draft — as yet unfinalized — suggests the village “require the completion of an independent traffic study and an independent engineering study to assess the cost and feasibility of a two-way road link from Lunn Terrace to the west end of the Boulevard, possibly in conjunction with a parking facility east of the Metro-North station.”
It likewise recommends the village “work with the Marathon-Campbell-West Point Foundry-area property owners and residents of Forge Gate to assess the feasibility of converting the currently private Forge Gate Drive into a public right of way.”
In part, the plan’s suggestions reflect concerns, raised at public meetings as part of the Comprehensive Plan process and at other forums over traffic congestion along Kemble Avenue and Rock Street. Citing concern about village character, safety, and property values, the petition states that “if the village is concerned about alleviating traffic congestion, the solution is not to build more roads or take over private roads that would destroy the charm and character of our small village. Rather the solution is to provide more parking to decrease the flow of traffic for those visitors looking for a place to park.”
While mentioning more parking as a solution to tourist traffic, the petition does not discuss ways to deal with the increased local traffic that could be generated if the Marathon property becomes a housing tract or businesses site.
The idea of a consolidated fire district may sound logical and beneficial to taxpayers, but to what taxpayers are the politicians referring to ? I don’t have the exact numbers in front of me but I think the Nelsonville taxpayers pay approx. .83/thousand, North Highlands taxpayers pay approx. 2.50/thousand, Garrison taxpayers pay approx 1.53/thousand, Continental Village taxpayers pay approx 1.77/thousand and the taxpayers in Philipstown who are protected by the Cold Spring Fire Co. pay approx 1.24/thousand. When you look at these numbers one would have to assume that the tax rate over the whole district would be somewhere in the middle. This is only an assumption, but in that, the question still remains what taxpayers would benefit? I myself highly doubt that the rate that someone pays who lives in Nelsonville would remain at .83/thousand, while the North Highlands rate would drop to .83/thousand if a consolidated fire district is formed.
The other issue that must be brought up is the one that pertains to debt already in place by that present district. I sat through the meeting with the lawyer that was held at the Town Hall on Nov 15 where he explained to everyone that the new district would not have to take on any outstanding debt that was voted on and approved by the “former” district. The problem is the new district would have to enter into a lease agreement with those former entities to use, and house the new districts firematic equipment. I know what the lease price would be if I was a taxpayer in one of those districts. It would be the amount of the annual bond payment, or mortgage that already exists. Therefore the entire district would now take on the responsibility of that debt indirectly.
These are two very simple reasons why in my opinion a consolidated fire district would never work. I ask the “impartial” panel to seriously explore who would benefit from this consolidation, and let everyone at risk know!