Though taxes won’t rise, some residents question plan for new vehicle
ANCRAM–An upcoming referendum asking fire district voters to authorize the issuance of $200,000 worth of bonds to buy a brand new fire truck has some taxpayers hot under the collar.
Coming up Tuesday, December 13, the second Tuesday of December as required by New York Town Law Section 175, fire districts across the county and state will conduct their annual elections. In the Ancram Fire District, the entity that provides for fire protection in and around the town, in addition to the annual election of a fire commissioner, voters will be asked to authorize the issuance of bonds to finance the purchase of a 2012/13 International Class A Pumper.
Ancram Supervisor Art Bassin invited Ancram Fire Chief David Boice to the November 17 Town Board meeting to discuss and answer questions about the new apparatus purchase. Fire Commissioner Will Lutz, who is the commissioner up for re-election this year, was also on hand.
The fire chief explained that under the company’s 25-year truck replacement plan– it’s the fire company’s 1988 Mack fire truck’s turn to go.
He said that the old truck is not as useful on auto accident calls anymore because it doesn’t have a “foam system” like the proposed new truck would have and is not up to National Fire Protection Association standards. “You need it to work when you need it,” Chief Boice said.
He said the fire company and commissioners spent “a long time checking” out and deciding on the specifications needed on a new truck and came up with the International model that will cost $332,500. The fire district has $132,000 saved up, which it will put down on the new truck, leaving the $200,000 balance to be financed by bonds. He said the cost of borrowing is about 2.37%.
The new truck can be serviced at Ben Funk, Inc., a longtime area truck dealer in Greenport. No more driving back and forth to the Albany area for service, which was necessary with the old Mack. That vehicle will be appraised, advertised for bids and, they hope, sold, the chief said.
Jack Lindsey, chairman of the town’s Ethics Board, said that he had received numerous calls from residents complaining about the truck-buying proposal, because the first time these people heard about the plan was in a recent townwide email sent by the supervisor, which included the public notice the fire district ran in the Hudson newspaper, the Register-Star .
“It seems to me if this has been in the works for a while it would have been a matter of professionalism and courtesy to let the Town Board know about it,” said Mr. Lindsey, who noted in the interest of full disclosure that he is a member of the Ancram Preservation Group, which is involved in litigation against the Ancram Board of Fire Commissioners over the John Steihle house.
“We all live in this small town, we should share information when it comes up,” said Mr. Lindsey.
Chief Boice restated the process and the replacement policy and said, “We were not trying to hide anything.”
The matter would not be a point of controversy at all if it had come out back in September when the decision was made to put a referendum on the ballot, said Mr. Lindsey.
Resident Libby McKee said that since the matter involves tax dollars, the fire district should want to be “very transparent” about it, not because questions are being raised, but because there is a need to be open and forthcoming so people aren’t wondering: Where did this come from?”
Chief Boice noted that the matter has been discussed at fire commissioner meetings for the past couple of months. Those meetings are public and are conducted at the firehouse on the second Tuesday of every month at 7 p.m. “Unfortunately,” the only people in attendance at the meetings are the five commissioners, the treasurer and himself, the chief said.
“That does not exonerate you from notifying the Town Board,” insisted Mr. Lindsey.
But the cost of the new fire truck “will not raise your budget,” said Chief Boice.
Supervisor Bassin confirmed that the treasurer provides the town with a copy of the fire district budget once it is complete, to be filed with the town budget. “The amount to be raised by taxes is flat” the cost of the fire truck “will be handled within the fire district budget. They budget a certain amount in a capital fund so they have money available for things like this,” said the supervisor.
From an Ethics Board standpoint on appearances, Mr. Lindsey said, “It would have been so easy to have anticipated and avoided questions because the information was not out there and folks are suspicious.”
Councilman Chris Thomas noted that the money involved is “our tax money and we should know how it’s going to be spent.” He then asked the chief if he and the commissioners had considered buying a used truck and produced a list of possible candidates he had researched online. He said the town’s Highway Department saves the taxpayers money by buying used trucks in good condition. “These are not great times and $332,000 is a lot of money,” said Mr. Thomas.
Fire Commissioner Lutz said the fire district does buy used trucks, but there are three “front line” trucks that the company prefers to buy new for the sake of reliability. The last time the fire district invested in a new truck was the year 2000, according to Mr. Bassin.
Mr. Lindsey suggested it would be “good public relations” for one of the five fire commissioners to alternately attend the town’s monthly board meetings to keep the town apprised of fire company/fire district business, even to report how many calls the fire company answered or how many lives firefighters saved.
Chief Boice then ran down a lengthy list of all the meetings, drills and activities he had attended during the month of October, which seemed to leave little room for anything else.
Resident Linda Bowen noted that no one connected with the fire company, be they firefighters or commissioners gets paid for their time.
Ancramdale resident William Cohan, who said he could be considered a “weekender,” contacted The Columbia Paper with his concerns about the matter.
He pointed to the inconvenience that having the fire district vote on a Tuesday evening creates for people who live elsewhere during the week and cannot get there to vote. He also noted that absentee ballots are not being made available. He called the situation an example of “poor government that does not allow the people who are on the hook for the money to have a full understanding or explanation” of the expenditure.
“What happens if the fire district defaults?” he asked.
Questioned about whether absentee ballots would be available for the election, Chief Boice said in the 27 or 28 years that the district had been conducting elections, no one had ever requested one, so the ballot clerk made no provision for them. Even New York Town Law Section 175 which spells out all fire district election requirements, does not mention absentee ballots.
All fire district elections, with the exception of those in villages, take place from 6 to 9 p.m. December 13, all registered town voters are eligible to vote.