Town Board Moves Toward Creation of an Autonomous Garrison Fire District

Plans vote Tuesday on paving part of South Mountain Pass

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong

The Philipstown Town Board last week took the first steps toward removing the Garrison Volunteer Fire Company from town government control and creating an autonomous fire district to oversee fire company affairs, including finances.

At its formal monthly meeting Thursday night (July 9), the board voted unanimously to hold a public hearing on Aug. 19 on dissolving the existing Garrison Fire Protection District and replacing it with a Garrison Fire District. Though in terms of a title the change only involves a word of difference, the effect would be far-reaching: Fire districts, governed by commissioners elected by citizens within the district, are not subject to town government control. By comparison, fire protection districts are local administrative units subject to the oversight of town boards.

Although relations recently have been amicable, for years town officials and fire company officials clashed heatedly over fire company budgets — which the Town Board set — and issues of authority.

The Philipstown Town Board during audience comments Thursday night; Councilors Robert Flaherty, left, and Mike Leonard, Supervisor Richard Shea, Councilors Nancy Montgomery and John Van Tassel

The Philipstown Town Board during audience comments Thursday night; Councilors Robert Flaherty, left, and Mike Leonard, Supervisor Richard Shea, Councilors Nancy Montgomery and John Van Tassel

The change from protection district to district could prove controversial; on Thursday night when the Town Board announced its plans for a public hearing criticism swiftly followed.

Also on Thursday, the board declared its intent to proceed with a previously scheduled meeting (this coming Tuesday evening, July 14) regarding South Mountain Pass — and Supervisor Richard Shea announced that the board plans to vote that night on paving a steep section of the road.

That, too, prompted an outcry.

Garrison Fire District

Shea said that the Garrison fire department had sought the change from a fire protection district to a stand-alone fire district and that “there’s a desire, both from the Town Board and the fire department, to get this done. I don’t want to see it go on another year. I do support the formation of a district.” However, he added, the change “is not a foregone conclusion” and the process would likely take months, with full public discussion.

More than once, Shea emphasized that the August public hearing — technically, two hearings, one on establishing a fire district and the other on dissolving the current fire protection district — would be only the beginning. He and other members pointed out that the hearing can continue into September and collect written as well as in-person comments. “This is just a public hearing for consideration of forming a fire district,” Shea said. “I don’t think there’s an issue with just considering this.”

Shea likewise said formation of a Garrison fire district “is something we’ve been talking about for many months, many years, actually” — an assertion challenged by audience member Joe Regele, a Garrison resident and fiscal watchdog long critical of the GVFC’s handling of finances.

Regele said he could only recall the idea being “fleetingly discussed” at a couple of meetings. (The board had talked of it in February, when Regele similarly voiced strong objections.) “I think it’s wrong to rush this thing forward to a conclusion which effectively disenfranchises everybody in Garrison,” he said Thursday.

According to Shea, Garrison voters will not get a chance to vote on the matter. “There’s no referendum involved” and “ultimately” the Town Board will make the decision — after extensive reviews and citizen input, he said.

“What’s the rush?” Regele asked. “I don’t understand after all these years what the pressure would be to get it done” now. “I think it’s a very serious discussion and one not to be rushed into.”

Councilor John Van Tassel, a veteran firefighter with the North Highlands Fire Department, which operates under the North Highlands Fire District, also mentioned the lengthy process involved. If the town ends up going ahead with a Garrison district, ideally, the new district “should be up and running by Jan. 1. So it [the process] needs to start,” he said.

Regele suggested that January 2017 would work as well as January 2016. He said budget questions remain and numerous details would have to be provided if one fire service entity is dissolved and another created. “We never really know how much money is on hand at the fire company,” he said.

A GVFC delegation attended the meeting, but did not address the board.

South Mountain Pass

The board again heard from disgruntled residents opposed to paving part of South Mountain Pass, an action town officials have described as essential to preserving the investment in a drainage project initiated this summer over objections.

Theresa Orlandi, who lives on Coppermine Road, which intersects South Mountain Pass, wondered if a traffic study on South Mountain Pass had occurred. “It behooves the town to have conducted one prior to this project,” she said. If the Town Board is concerned about safety and wants to pave part of the road, “a traffic study is imperative” and part of town “due diligence” responsibilities, she said, citing the advice of a lawyer she consulted. On Tuesday, “we definitely want some solid answers,” she told the board.

 An uphill section of South Mountain Pass, looking west

An uphill section of South Mountain Pass, looking west

Shea signaled his frustrations with the ongoing dispute, including any suggestions the board keeps the public in the dark. The board discussed road improvements — including paving — in March and held three meetings, plus an on-site walk-through, between late May and late June. “We’ve had a lot of discussion — nights and nights of discussion” about South Mountain Pass, Shea observed. And throughout those debates, he said, he had made his position clear: “I support the paving and the drainage.”

Alex Clifton, another opponent of the roadwork, responded that “from my perspective, it’s been a very one-sided communication.” He reminded the board of the residents’ offer to pay for an analysis of alternatives to the current approaches to drainage and paving. “It’s just troubling to me that we’re moving forward without considering alternatives,” he said. “It would be nice if we were able to have a discussion on Tuesday and not rush into” a decision on paving and if more time could separate a board discussion from a board vote.

“I’m going to be voting for paving” on Tuesday, Shea replied. “An action of some sort will be taken.”

Two audience members defended the paving.

“I hope the Town Board can stay strong on this project,” said Ed Polhemus, who lives on South Mountain Pass. He remembered paving initiatives on sections of other dirt roads. “When all is said and done, it’s probably the best thing that ever happened” to those roads, Polhemus said.

Lee Erickson, a Garrison resident who once ran against Shea for the job of town supervisor, said “I’d like to applaud you for considering paving a lot of these steep slopes in town,” which, he said, promote the safety of the environment, residents and drivers alike.

Betty Budney memorial

Also on Thursday, the board unanimously approved a resolution authorizing an effort to collect money to establish a memorial in honor of the late Betty Budney, who served on the Town Board for more than two decades and undertook a wide range of philanthropic and public service projects. “She’s just irreplaceable … an incredible person,” Shea said. “We do want to have an appropriate memorial,” such as a bench outside Town Hall.

Photos by L.S. Armstrong


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