State Comptroller Could Decide Issue of Fire Company Independence

Town also reports progress in relations with fire departments

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong

After months of acrimony, and dueling lawyer’s letters, the differences between Cold Spring Fire Company No. 1 (CSFC) and the Cold Spring Village Board seem headed toward a resolution. But it could require a ruling by the New York State Comptroller on the degree of fire company independence to get there. At the board’s formal monthly meeting Tuesday night (Aug. 9) Trustees J. Ralph  Falloon, a professional firefighter and former CSFC chief, and Bruce Campbell, the deputy mayor, said they had met with fire company members on July 30 in a session they described as a breakthrough. The upshot of the meeting is that the CSFC is going to conduct historical and legal research to try to demonstrate the company’s independence from village authority. “Basically, the fire company believes that they’re an independent fire department,” Falloon told his board colleagues. “We don’t know if they can legally be an independent fire department. To move forward, we would like to encourage them, or us, to make that legal distinction as to whether they are allowed to be independent,” he said. “Unfortunately, this distinction will be made, most likely, through the state, the comptroller” rather than in Cold Spring.

After conferring with Campbell and himself, “the fire company was very, very relieved,” Falloon added. “We came to common ground and now we know that probably what the comptroller and/or NYCOM says” will hold sway. (NYCOM, the New York Conference of Mayors, lends its expertise to villages on such matters.) “Defining that will make things better going forward.

“We’ll wait to hear from them. Part of the ice-breaking at that [July 30] meeting was to say, ‘look, if you guys are [independent], we’ll support you as such. Their part is to prove that they’re independent. The village sees them as a municipal, village fire department.  So when they come back with a determination on the facts that show them independent, I will absolutely support them and ask the board to, also. But we have to get the determination first, before we can say they are,” said Falloon. He pointed out the issue can be a little complicated “On some of the things they act independent; some of the things they do follow general municipal law - like a village office or department. “So it’s just a matter of finding out, once and for all on their side, whether they’re independent or not.”

The fire company president, Michael Bowman, did not respond to requests for comment and confirmation of the company’s agreement to this method of determining its status in the village.  The CSFC leadership has said repeatedly it sees no need for a change in its long-standing independent administrative status. Mayor Seth Gallagher has argued for greater fiscal accountability and review of fire company operations and readiness.  In the recent past, angry debates over keys to the village-owned firehouse and lines of authority have erupted at public meetings.

Joined by Campbell after the board meeting, Falloon reiterated that he expects the matter to be resolved by the state. “We’ll let a higher authority figure it out [so] it’s not us [a Village Board] saying, ‘we don’t agree with you'” about CSFC autonomy.  However the decision goes, “I’m hoping we can come to an agreement as to how they can act as independently as possible, legally,” he said. At the same time, “they can’t ask us to [regard them] as something they cannot legally be.” He said he was unsure how long it might take to get a comptroller’s determination, but also noted that the process could stop short of the comptroller’s office if, upon finishing its research, the fire company proposes a different resolution, locally. However, should comptroller intervention be sought, “I’m hoping it moves fast,” he said, noting that crucial concerns could be affected by the outcome, including important village budget matters. In a 1988 opinion on a jurisdictional question involving a municipality, the Comptroller’s Office declared that under state law, “the fire companies of a village constitute the village fire department – subject in certain respects, to the control of the village authorities.”

Overall, once the situation with the CSFC is resolved, Campbell said, the concept “is to improve communication, so we have a better understanding, so we don’t run into the same situation again.” Falloon pointed out that friction between village officials and the 115-year-old fire company “is absolutely not” new. As examples, he cited tension between the CSFC and former Mayor Anthony Phillips and a fracas decades ago when allegations arose that an earlier mayor wanted to take over the fire company. This time around, Falloon said, “could we come to another impasse? We could. Will we? I hope not.” With the recent outreach by both sides, “the dialogue ice was broken.” Before that, he said, “we were so caught up in arguing, we couldn’t see the bigger picture.”

Town Board reports progress
In a related development, the Philipstown Town Board on Aug. 4 discussed the follow-up to the controversial Graner report, which recommended town-wide consolidation of all four volunteer fire companies, much to the companies’ collective consternation. Councilor John Van Tassel, a firefighter in North Highlands, said the chiefs of the respective fire departments have been evaluating aspects of safety and training mentioned by Graner. Upon completion, the evaluation will generate a report for the board and public. “I think we’re on the road to an improved situation,” he said, citing recent and pending inter-departmental drills. “As far as consolidation goes, we’ve put that on the back burner until we deal with the safety issues.” Likewise “we’ve been going around to the fire houses” to improve communication, Supervisor Richard Shea said. “I think that after a rocky start, things are getting better.”


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