Friday, March 18, 2011
Spending Questioned for Long Island Fire Districts
Fire Districts on Long Island are under scrutiny as communities as diverse as Dix Hills and Gordon Heights question how money is spent.
Volunteer firefighters -- 20,000 of them -- form the backbone of Long Island's fire and emergency rescue system, and it might seem as though costs are low.
But Nassau and Suffolk have 180 separate fire departments with budgets in the millions. And most are almost right next door to each other. Dix Hills, with a $3.9 million budget, is 3 miles away from Commack, which spends $3.8 million, and 7 miles from Huntington Manor, which spends $4.7 million.
Taxpayers foot the bill.
"Volunteer fire fighters deserve all the praise you can give them. They come out at all hours of the night," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University's National Suburban Institute. "There still has to be a balance between cost and showing them respect and providing services that are efficient and effective."
Many fire departments pay dispatchers, medics, EMS folks and business managers. Salaries add up and so do volunteer incentives like property tax breaks, some free college tuition, and pensions. Volunteers qualify for perks by responding to a percentage of calls per month. That's one reason why when the alarms sounds, many show up. So pension bills are high.
In Huntington Manor, for example, the district spends $375,000 a year on benefits for 125 volunteers.
Vehicles are expensive too. Each house has its own fleet. Long Island has about 1,792 fire and EMS vehicles, according to the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency. The FDNY has 792. At least 90 Long Island fire departments have heavy-duty rescue trucks that carry "the jaws of life" and cost about $800,000. The FDNY has 5, although every ladder company has "the jaws of life."
"I don't think you can make a case that we need as many fire trucks as many firehouses that we have in most communities," Hofstra's Levy said.
"You can't possibly believe that having all these little fiefdoms on Long Island is an efficient way to function," said former FDNY Commissioner Thomas Von Essen. "It's not."
Volunteers and elected commission resist change. They enjoy perks like big club rooms and bars in some firehouses that are used for private parties.
A mini-tax revolt happened in Dix Hills when the elected commissioners proposed a new building, training center, and maintenance facility that would have cost $19.75 million. Taxpayers questioned whether it was necessary.
"There must some other way of doing this than spending $20 million," said Allen Fritz, a homeowner.
But Dix Hills Fire Chief Richard Granahan insists: "We definitely have to make it better for all the volunteers that come and dedicate their time."
"We have a real problem with this facility," elected Commissioner Phil Tepe told FOX 5. "It is not energy efficient, it's not conducive."
Nevertheless community concern forced a postponement of the bond vote.
Farther out on the island in the 1.7-square-mile community of Gordon Heights, taxpayers on average pay about $1,500 for fire service, which has 19 vehicles. Rosalie Hanson led a petition drive to dissolve the district.
"It's like a million dollars a year is being sucked out of this community and we can't afford it," she said.
A volunteer firefighter told FOX 5: "It's very unfair what they are doing to the volunteers."
There is concern that this historically all African-American fire district is being singled out, and that the community will suffer.
"What does it cost to save a life?" asked a volunteer who identified himself only as Jonathan.
Yet Attorney Paul Sabbatino helped taxpayers convince the town of Brookhaven to consider dissolving the fire district.
"We can dissolve this district and replace it with an alternative service by getting one of the adjacent fire districts to contract with the town to provide the same services," he said.
Brookhaven officials are considering whether to dissolve the district.
But everywhere on Long Island volunteer firefighters think merging fire departments is a bad idea.
"The ramifications of that are going to be slower response times," said Vincent BiFano, of the Huntington Manor District.
In Commack, Commissioner Pat Fazio said: "It's a very dense island and it's very populated, and I think each district has to do what it has to do."
Yet former FDNY Commissioner Von Essen said even though efficiency is likely to reduce response time, it is time for change.
"Governor Cuomo has a great opportunity to sit down the volunteer firefighters and say 'The party is over,'" Von Essen said. "'We are now going to coordinate and consolidate and run our fire departments more efficiently, and run our fire departments at a lower cost.'"