Town Board Prepared to FOIL Garrison Fire Company Budget Details

Also sends draft anti-fracking legislation on for comment

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong

Philipstown’s Town Board members last week declared their intent to “FOIL” details of the fifth bathroom at the Garrison firehouse, if the Garrison Volunteer Fire Company ignores repeated requests for financial data on the contested project.

To “FOIL” means to submit a Freedom of Information Law filing to obtain undisclosed materials.

Garrison Fire Department interiorAt its April 10 workshop, the board also agreed to invite an expert in both municipal law and fire departments to brief officials and firefighters on the extent of local government authority over volunteer fire companies.

The taxpayer-supported fire company’s building of a new bathroom has caused friction between the Town Board and GVFC periodically for several years. After having lain dormant, the issue came back to life in January when board members questioned the project and sought financial records on it. They subsequently asked again in writing, according to Supervisor Richard Shea, and then brought it up at the board’s formal monthly meeting April 4, prompting a heated exchange with two GVFC representatives.

“If we can’t get a response, we’ll have to FOIL the document,” Shea said. “I certainly don’t anticipate having to. There shouldn’t be a need.” He said he merely wanted answers to basic questions about “spending money that we didn’t allocate in the current budget year. Where did it come from? When was it spent? And how much was it?”

Board members expressed both frustration but said they had no desires to micromanage the GVFC.

“We’ve asked for the information and been told ‘no,’” Councilor John Van Tassel observed. “I don’t want to run the Garrison fire department. I’ve been a fire chief. But I have a responsibility to watch the dollars that are being put into their budget.”

Garrison Fire Department interior

Inside the firehouse garage

Councilor Dave Merandy recalled that last fall during budget-setting the GVFC addressed the board, “saying they need more. Then all of a sudden money comes up out of nowhere” for a fifth bathroom. “That’s a concern and, I think, is where our responsibility comes in.”

Van Tassel, a firefighter with the North Highlands Fire District/Department, said he would make another appeal to the GVFC for the financial information.

However, he likewise recommended the board bring in an outside expert to explain relevant state laws on relations between local governments and fire companies, which receive public funds to provide fire protection to residents.

“I’m tired of banging my head against the wall with the same old thing, every time” the board seeks information like the GVFC’s budget details, Van Tassel told fellow board members. “They’re a municipal organization. They have to abide by the law.”

Shea endorsed the idea of “bringing in someone who can definitely say: ‘Here is the town’s role, make no mistake about it, in the oversight involving the Garrison fire department and other fire departments.’ We’ve established that. We’ve cited the state law.” Yet, he added, “it seems like when it comes from us, it’s not enough” to convince some firefighters.

Van Tassel said that the Town Board has a definite supervisory role with the GVFC, while its relationship with the other three fire departments in Philipstown differs. “With Garrison, we control 100 percent of their budget. So we have more authority with them,” he said.

Anti-fracking law and code updates

For review, the board also sent to the Planning Board a half dozen draft new laws, including a ban on hydraulic fracturing — “fracking” — and use of fracking byproducts in Philipstown. The other five draft laws deal with code updates, typically to align language on the book with the zoning adopted in 2011.

The anti-fracking law would “prohibit hydraulic fracturing and associated activities, including disposal and transport of products and wastes in connection with drilling for fossil fuel products.” It states that “serious health and environmental impacts caused by these uses could threaten the health of the residents in the town, require use of massive amounts of water, or transportation of massive amounts of water, causing impact to town highways, and cause other aesthetic, environmental and public health impacts, resulting in the degradation of the quality of life in the Town of Philipstown and the town’s infrastructure.”

“We don’t want it here,” Shea said of fracking. “We don’t want it trucked here. We don’t want the brine on roads.” Forwarding the draft “is the first step in the process,” he said. “It will be at least three months before it gets adopted.” The law constitutes a town version of a Putnam County law adopted in March.

ESP rezoning

Before adjourning, the board began considering a request from Expanded Supply Products Inc., ESP, of 3330 Route 9, to rezone part of its property from residential to commercial. According to Shea, the firm currently fails to meet site plan requirements due to insufficient commercial space and thus seeks to use some of its land zoned residential for business needs, allowing it to come into compliance. Board members called for a meeting with residents of neighboring homes to solicit their opinions and discussed various options for proceeding. Shea promised to prepare a potential plan, with stipulations and safeguards, for the board to review in dealing with the ESP request.

Photos by K.E. Foley

One thought on “Town Board Prepared to FOIL Garrison Fire Company Budget Details

  1. The Town Board has to file a FOIL request to get information from the Fire Department that they fund? It is a sad day indeed for the taxpayers of Philipstown that their elected representatives are so unaware of the power they hold, namely, the power of the purse. It is the Board that votes on the FD contract (in Put Valley, it’s a one year contract) and the Board that is responsible for negotiating same. It is up to the supervisor and council persons to do their due diligence and to go over that contract with a fine-tooth comb and see whether or not the FD is justified in its monetary requests.

    For years Joe Regele has been an inspiration to me in my own quest to get similar financial data about the PVFD. Why is it always the individual taxpayer that ends up doing the job that government officials are elected and paid to do? The Board seems surprised to find out that there was extra money available for the bathroom in question. Maybe none of them have ever heard of a “fund balance.” In Put Valley, our FD at one time had a fund balance that was around $1 million (not a typo). That is extra money that the TB voted to give them that they didn’t use from year to year. There is no oversight — they get to spend it however they want. In our case, they are working on plans to eventually construct a new, unnecessary Taj Mahal fire station that will probably bankrupt our town. In other words, the residents are being over-taxed to pay for the excesses of the department. But who among us dares to criticize the voting bloc known as the “brave first responders”?