By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
Voting 3 to 2 Tuesday (Sept. 6) the Cold Spring Village Board Tuesday night approved a resolution declaring Cold Spring Fire Company No. 1 (CSFC) to be independent of village government supervision, although restricted from spending money without Village Board approval. Drafted by the fire company and adopted verbatim by the Village Board, the resolution also directs the village to sign a contract with the CSFC to obtain fire-protection for Cold Spring and permits the company to negotiate on its own behalf with Nelsonville and the Town ofPhilipstownfor supplying service to those jurisdictions. At least temporarily, the resolution caps a several-month dispute between the CSFC and Village Board in general and Mayor Seth Gallagher in particular over the level of control over the 115-year-old fire company. However, as outlined a month ago, the matter is still likely to go to the New York State Comptroller for an ultimate determination on CSFC autonomy. To date the fracas, with dueling letters and attorney involvement, has collectively cost an estimated $9,000-$14,000 in legal fees.
Approved at the end of a 4-hour meeting largely devoted to other business, the resolution was supported by Trustees J. Ralph Falloon, Charles Hustis, and Airinhos Serradas and opposed by Trustee Bruce Campbell and Gallagher. Campbell, the deputy mayor, maintained that the resolution violates a process devised several weeks ago that called for an ad hoc panel of trustees and CSFC representatives to thrash out details before either side presents a policy statement publicly. “It could’ve happened and it should’ve happened that way. I think that’s the only way to do it – do it right,”Campbellsaid. In adopting the resolution the board over-rode advice from Village Attorney Stephen Gaba and, according to the mayor, likewise ignored admonitions from by the village accountant.
The resolution states that the CSFC “has operated as an independent not-for-profit corporation since 1900,” that the Village Board never appointed its own fire commissioners and thus passed authority to the company itself, and that “the Village Board agrees that the Cold Spring Fire Company No. 1 will continue to operate independently from village municipal operations, having delegated power to the Cold Spring Fire Company No. 1 Board of Governors to oversee the general operations of the fire department.” However, the resolution also declares the CSFC “will not undertake any activity which will incur an expense to the village without Village Board of Trustees prior approval,” granting a power-of-the-purse to elected village officials.
A professional firefighter and former CSFC chief, Falloon urged his board colleagues to approve the resolution intact “to show support for the fire company and hopefully end unnecessary spending on legal fees and potentially ugly disagreements.” He read a memo in which Gaba, who was not present, expressed doubts about the village’s ability to cede the powers cited in the resolution. Falloon acknowledged that “Mr. Gaba’s concerns are definitely valid” and said a staff member of the New York Conference of Mayors “had the same concerns.” Nonetheless, Falloon recommended “we adopt the resolution as is and then amend anything the comptroller feels needs amending.” Gaba later told the news media that “I had concerns over the propriety of a fire protection contract between a village and its own fire company, questioned the validity of a resolution agreeing that a village fire company is independent of the village, and questioned the validity of a resolution purporting to “˜delegate’ the Village Board’s authority over the Village Fire Department to the Fire Company’s Board of Governors. I recommended seeking an opinion from the state comptroller before taking action.”
Gallagher said he did not receive the resolution until Friday, Sept. 2, the eve of the Labor Day weekend, allowing the Village Board no time to discuss it. He also objected that “it contradicts village law” and referred to intermittent village supervision of the fire company in the last century. Fire Company President Michael Bowman attributed the ongoing conflict to the mayor’s attempt in April to obtain three firehouse keys – one for himself, one for the police, and one for the village clerk, instead of accepting a single key for the clerk. The village owns the firehouse and leases it to the CSFC, but also uses it for some public meetings. Friction flared over other issues, too. “I’m sick and tired of spending taxpayer money, fighting between us. I just want to end it,” Bowman told the Village Board.
John Landolfi, CSFC vice president, estimated that the fire company has spent “in excess of $5,000 to $10,000″ on lawyer fees so far. Both Gallagher and Serradas unofficially pegged the village’s legal expenses at about $4,000. Bowman declined to tell Philipstown.info how much of the CSFCs outlay on lawyer bills came from taxpayer money. “Obviously the Fire Company and the majority of the Village Board wish to move forward from this costly legal mess that the mayor began six months ago,” he said Wednesday (Sept. 7). “The resolution passed last night is a step in the right direction, and hopefully will end the legal bickering and start a dialogue on how to restore a clear and professional relationship between the fire company and the village leaders.” Gallagher and Falloon said they expected the village to send the resolution to the state comptroller soon, to be followed by the contract, once finalized. Over the last few decades, the state comptroller has ruled on various questions on villages and fire companies.
Text of resolution
Draft Resolution Re: Relationship between the Cold Spring Fire Company & Village of Cold Spring Board of Trustees
WHEREAS, the Village of Cold Spring and Cold Spring Fire Company Number One wish to clarify their relationship;
WHEREAS, under Village Law, the Board of Fire Commissioners governs the activities of the fire department; and
WHEREAS, the Cold Spring Fire Company Number One has operated as an independent not-for-profit corporation since 1900; and
WHEREAS, the Village Board of Trustees, during the past 115 years, has delegated the authority of the Board of Fire Commissioners to the Council of the Cold Spring Fire Company Number One by declining to appoint fire commissioners; and
WHEREAS, when there are no fire commissioners, the Village Law states the fire company comes under the control of its own Fire Council; and
WHEREAS, the Fire Council has the powers similar to the Village Board for the care, custody and control of the property of the fire company; and
WHEREAS, it may and has purchased equipment necessary to provide fire protection to the Village; and
WHEREAS, it may erect and maintain suitable and necessary buildings for the fire company; and
WHEREAS, it may adopt rules for members of the fire company; and
WHEREAS, it may adopt rules and regulations governing the fire company;
WHEREAS, the Fire Council shall protect and preserve the Village property and fire apparatus and prevent danger from fire and protect property exposed to destruction or injury by fire among other powers; and
WHEREAS, in exchange for fire protection, the Village of Cold Spring provides suitable quarters for the Fire Company, detailed terms of which are laid out in a separate, mutually agreed lease agreement; and
WHEREAS, the Fire Council of the Cold Spring Fire Company Number One is its Board of Governors; and
WHEREAS, the Village Board of Trustees, hereby delegates to the Fire Council (in this instance the Cold Spring Fire Company Board of Governors) its full authority to operate, preserve and protect the fire company and its equipment as it has heretofore done; and
WHEREAS, the Cold Spring Fire Company Number One agrees that it will not
undertake any activity which will incur an expense to the Village without Village Board of Trustees prior approval; and
WHEREAS, the Cold Spring Board of Trustees wishes to clarify its relationship with the Cold Spring Fire Company Number One, as it relates to fire protection services rendered by the fire company to and for the residents of the Village, by establishing a fixed sum to be paid by the Village at such intervals as shall be mutually agreeable; and
WHEREAS, the Fire Company currently provides fire protection services to two (2) other municipalities and the parties agree that the Fire Company will negotiate in good faith for renewal of those fire protection services, including in the negotiations and contracts, the pro rata costs to the Village for fire related retirement programs and worker’s compensation costs, if any.
NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that the Board of Trustees of the Village of Cold Spring, opts not to appoint a Board of Fire Commissioners. The Village Board agrees to enter into a contract with the Cold Spring Fire Company Number One to provide fire protection for the Residents of the Village of Cold Spring. The Village Board agrees that the Cold Spring Fire Company Number One will continue to operate independently from village municipal operations, having delegated power to the Cold Spring Fire Company No.1 Board of Governors, to oversee the general operations of the Fire Department. In matters where there is uncertainty, both the Board of Trustees and the Board of Governors of the Cold Spring Fire Company No.1 agree to meet and negotiate a resolution to the uncertainty consistent with the principles and independent intentions set forth in this resolution.