Saranac Lake debates fire district setup

SARANAC LAKE – Village trustees this week debated the next steps they should take surrounding a proposal to create a Saranac Lake-area fire district.

Monday night’s discussion, mostly a back-and-forth between trustees Allie Pelletieri and Paul Van Cott, came less than a week after representatives of the village, the towns of Brighton, Franklin, Harrietstown, North Elba and St. Armand, and the Bloomingdale, Paul Smiths-Gabriels and Saranac Lake volunteer fire departments came together for an informational session on the formation of a fire district.

Essentially a new political subdivision, a fire district is run by a board of five publicly elected commissioners. The proposed Saranac Lake area fire district would operate the fire services now provided by the three departments, and it would set its own budget and collect taxes from residents of the district.

“I was wondering where this village board sits with the idea,” Pelletieri said Monday night. “As far as I’m thinking, we just need to get the budget for the Bloomingdale fire department, the budget for Paul Smiths-Gabriels, and we have all the numbers for our fire department. Then we’d know what as a group we’re spending now, and we can lay it out over the district we’re going to assess to do this.”

Van Cott countered that it would make more sense to see what the towns and fire departments think of the idea before putting the numbers together.

“You can run different scenarios, but until we know whether these folks are in or out … the first step is where are they?” Van Cott said. “Are they enthusiastic about it?”

Pelletieri said figuring out some base numbers should be the first step in the process.

“We can always unplug (a town or a fire department),” he said. “If Brighton doesn’t want in, we take their budget out and we take their assessed value out and just plug in the new numbers. Somebody has to start. This thing of, ‘I’m not going to do it until they do it,’ has to stop. We’ll get nowhere.”

Van Cott said a fire district shouldn’t be seen as the only option to pursue. He suggested improving communication and coordination between the village, towns and the fire departments under the current structure, “because quite frankly, one of my concerns coming out of that meeting was the idea of creating a new government entity that has taxing authority of its own.

“Why can’t we have a meeting with North Elba and St. Armand and Harrietstown and find out what are the problems? Are there ways we can come up with to have better communication and coordination so we don’t have to go out and create a new government entity with its own taxing authority? I’ve worked for government all my life, and government loves to feed itself. It loves to grow.”

Pelletieri said a dedicated board of fire commissioners would understand the complexities of running a fire department better than boards of local elected officials. He’s said he’s not sold yet on the idea of creating a fire district, but he said there are “serious issues” between the village, Franklin County and the Saranac Lake fire department that need to be addressed.

“That’s been one of the things that’s bothered me since I became a trustee,” Van Cott agreed. “There’s this split from the fire department. How do we get through that? Maybe that’s another conversation we should be having. But is a fire district going to resolve that?”

Mayor Clyde Rabideau said putting together the budget numbers from each fire department would be an “easy spreadsheet” and a good starting point.

“But the numbers aren’t valid until our brother and sister municipalities say yes or no,” Rabideau said. “And they should see those numbers, too.”

Pelletieri said he would compile the budget information and distribute it to the rest of the village board, and to each of the towns.

Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or