By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
Agencies from the state to local fire departments have been sluggish — at best — in responding to requests for information for the fire-protection study begun last fall, the Town Board learned at its regular monthly meeting Feb. 3. The board also received a plea for refinancing debt at the Garrison fire house to save taxpayer money. Likewise, the supervisor and four councilors heard that snow removal between Jan. 1 and Feb. 3 cost nearly $75,000 and that residents who dump snow on public roads create significant hazards.
Councilor Nancy Montgomery, who helped launch the review of fire and ambulance services, said that Ron Graner, the town consultant on the issue, “has not to date received any information from the state, the county, or any of the local departments.” The requests went out in November, she noted, expressing hope that “by the middle of February we’ll receive the information, the details, at least some of them — comments, opinions, anything — to be sent to our consultant so he can develop his report. As it stands now, he’ll develop his report without this,” she advised. “And that speaks volumes as to where we’re at with what we need to do with our system.”
After the meeting, she told Philipstown.info that board members had engaged in recent, productive conversations with the Continental Village Fire Department and that the North Highlands Fire Department had started to comply with the information request. Cold Spring Fire Company Number 1 and the Garrison Volunteer Fire Company had not responded yet, she said. Montgomery also said that she and Graner had been forced to use Freedom of Information requests in seeking data loose from the county and state.
“I took on this really unpopular initiative to file for the grant, receive the grant, and hire an unbiased professional to open up a dialogue between the Town Board, the community, and each department,” Montgomery said during the meeting. Across the country, volunteer fire departments are losing members and face daunting problems, she told the board and public. In Philipstown, “we’ve enjoyed the protection and dedication of volunteer fire and EMS for 115 years. For the sake of our volunteers and residents, I think it’s my responsibility to ensure that these services are sustainable.” Like their counterparts elsewhere in the nation, the local departments must recruit enough volunteers and deal with increased demands. “At the rate this is going, it’s going to be a crisis,” Montgomery warned. “I’m hoping we can get the information we need, so the Town Board can look at it and work as a community to make sure that we can be sustainable.”
Snow removal costs and hazards
The board also considered snow removal problems. In his written report, Highway Superintendent Roger Chirico stated that the department “spent $74,874.64 in snow removal,” between Jan. 1 and Feb. 3. He also reminded residents of snow-removal rules. “At no time should snow from your driveway, walkway, or any other part of your property be pushed, plowed, shoveled, or blown onto town roads,” he stated. Chirico acknowledged that snow mounds “are many times the result of town plowing and state plowing” and present hazards by blocking a driver’s view of oncoming traffic. He urged residents to call the Highway Department at 845-265-3530 to report obstructions. “You’re not supposed to put any snow on the road,” Councilwoman Betty Budney added. Lee Erickson, a member of the audience, described residents’ dumping of snow as particularly troublesome. Supervisor Richard Shea agreed. “It’s completely inconsiderate. It creates a hazard for the school bus. It’s a public hazard on a public road.”
Garrison fire department refinancing
Another audience member, Joe Regele, turned the board’s attention back to fire department issues with a request that the Garrison Volunteer Fire Company both refinance its mortgage and use some of its bank deposit to pay down part of the mortgage. As he understands it, he said, the fire department “has an outstanding mortgage of a little over a million dollars,” with 10 years left on the term, “at a rate of just under 7 percent. Just literally restructuring this document would save the taxpayers money. In addition, I believe the fire company ended 2010 with somewhere around $400,000 in cash in the bank, a portion of which is a reserve fund to be used for purchase of new equipment.” Some of that could be used without adversely affecting present or future operations, he said. “It’s a win-win,” Regele claimed. “We’ve got this rather large sum of cash sitting idle that’s costing Garrison taxpayers a lot of money. Just pre-paying $100,000 of this debt “¦ saves $36,000 over the life of the mortgage. And that’s ‘found’ money. It’s money that we’re not throwing out the window.” He urged the Town Board to address the issue with the GVFC soon, before the window of opportunity for refinancing passes.
Shea promised to try to meet with fire company officials this coming week to “get it done quickly. If there’s an opportunity to save money, we want to investigate it right a way.” He said initial reaction from the GVFC on such questions had been positive. “I’m sure if there’s an opportunity to save money, they’ll do it,” said Councilman John Van Tassel.
Search for old munitions at Town Park
In other action, the board authorized the supervisor to sign an agreement to allow the Department of the Army to search the Town Park in Garrison for old ammunition. “I doubt we’re going to find any down there,” Shea predicted. Andrew Chmar, executive director of the Hudson Highlands Land Trust, said the army routinely checks for stray ordnance on land that came within firing range during target practice in the past. “It’s a precautionary thing,” said Chmar, a West Point graduate, from the audience. In the 19th century, West Point reportedly conducted frequent drills by firing toward the mountains and other terrain. Parts of Philipstown also served as army campgrounds during the Revolutionary War. Councilwoman Montgomery pointed out that scavengers already trespass on the Town Park, looking for munitions or other military artifacts.