Saranac Lake fire district plan floated

SARANAC LAKE – The idea of creating a single fire district that would cover a half-dozen local governments and three fire departments in the Saranac Lake area drew plenty of questions, and some concerns, at a well-attended informational meeting Wednesday night at the Harrietstown Town Hall.

Buffalo-based lawyer Mark Butler, who specializes in emergency service law, led the roughly three-hour meeting that drew a crowd of elected officials from the village of Saranac Lake and towns of Brighton, Franklin, Harrietstown, North Elba and St. Armand, plus officers and members of the Bloomingdale, Paul Smiths-Gabriels and Saranac Lake volunteer fire departments.

Saranac Lake Fire Chief Brendan Keough said consolidating services and forming a fire district is something officials from the three fire departments have been talking about over the years, but more seriously in the last few months. Village and Harrietstown board members have also been meeting to discuss the concept, he said.

“We have more questions than answers about what this is all about,” he said. “So we decided to bring in an expert and educate us on how a fire district works.”

Keough noted that the discussion comes as the local fire departments are dealing with decreased volunteerism, more state and federal mandates and increased costs. At the same time, local governments, with a big push from the state, are looking to consolidate services to reduce the property tax burden on their residents, Keough said.

What is a fire district? Butler said it’s basically a new political subdivision, just like a town or village. Operated by five publicly elected commissioners, a fire district can have any boundaries. As an example, Butler said a Saranac Lake fire district could extend to the boundaries of the Saranac Lake Central School District or some or all of towns that make up and surround the village.

The fire district would operate the fire services now provided by the three departments. The fire companies would still have the same internal structure, still elect their own chiefs and still do their own fundraising, but the district would control their budgets and manage their trucks, equipment and personnel.

The village and towns would no longer control or contract with the fire departments. Instead the fire district would set its own budget and collect taxes from residents of the district each year by town’s tax levy. The district’s budget process would be public, just like a village or a town, and it would be subject to the state’s property tax cap, Butler said. Any borrowing would require a mandatory public vote.

The benefits, Butler said, include that the village and the towns would no longer be in the fire service business and would no longer carry liability for providing fire services in their communities. More importantly, everyone in the fire district would pay the same rate for the same services.

“There won’t be an inequity between those residents of the village and the residents of any one of the towns that might be included in this,” Butler said. Initially, he added later, there may be no tax savings by forming a fire district, “but generally we see that when we do these things that after two or three years down the road there are efficiencies created by fire district creation.”

There’s no public vote in creating a fire district. The village and town boards in the municipalities interested in forming a district would each have to determine if it’s in the overall public interest. If so, they would pass resolutions to join the district. The resolutions would be subject to permissive referendum.

Asked during a question and answer period what the disadvantages could be, Butler said the municipalities would lose authority over their fire services, including setting the tax rate for those services. The fire departments wouldn’t have control over their own operations or purchasing of their own equipment, which could be realigned based on where it’s needed the most.

Given those issues, it’s no surprise that some in the audience had a few concerns.

Tom Tucker, an assistant chief in the Paul Smiths-Gabriels fire department, said he has concerns about “losing stuff, both assets and as a taxpayer I think it could change us dramatically. I think we want to keep all our options on the table and look at it as a whole, both as a fire department and as a taxpayer.”

Town of Franklin Supervisor Art Willman, whose town currently contracts with the Bloomingdale fire department, said he’s worried about not having a say in the cost of fire services to his taxpayers.

“Would an increase in cost be reflected in service or would we be getting the same kind of service, which isn’t bad, and just be paying more money for that?” he asked. “(The board of fire commissioners) can either be very responsible, they can go haywire, you just don’t know. They would be ostensibly elected officials, but having a five-year term, they can do an awful lot of damage in five years.”

Harrietstown Supervisor Bob Bevilacqua said the municipalities would still have a say.

“You don’t have control over the dollars, but there’s enough transparency and there’s enough controls over how those dollars are put together,” he said. “They still have to meet a 2 percent tax cap. On some things (like borrowing) there’s a public referendum. As long as the public pays attention to what’s going on, I don’t think you’re going to see any out of control budgets.”

“I think change is very tough,” said Harrietstown Councilman Ron Keough. “The human issues of turf and ego are always going to be there, but I think the cost of operation and maintaining at least the same level of service is absolutely paramount.”

Village Trustee Paul Van Cott said the idea of a fire district is “a big lift” but he also said he understands the fire department’s struggles with replacing equipment and increased costs and mandates.

“I think it’s a worthwhile discussion,” he said. “I hope we continue talking about this and other options for achieving those two objectives that I think all the communities and the fire departments share: good services and keeping the cost down.”

Brendan Keough said he was very happy that so many fire department members and elected officials attended.

“It demonstrates there’s at least an interest in exploring it and that people have an open mind that there might be a better way of delivering services more efficient and more cost effective,” he said. “Where it goes from here, I don’t know.”

Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or