Voters nix firehouse
By Ted Waddell
ROCKLAND April 29, 2008 On Tuesday, April 22, taxpayers in the Roscoe-Rockland Fire District turned thumbs down on a proposed $3.25 million firehouse, a six-bay structure designed to replace three aging buildings: a cramped ca, 1929 firehouse, an old fire house used for storage and community breakfasts and fund-raisers, and the EMS station.
The 276-86 vote reflected the local community’s opposition to what was perceived as an excessive cost of the proposal and a lack of community involvement in the planning process.
In the span of about a month, the fire commissioners held two public meetings to present the proposal, followed by the vote in which taxpayers nixed the idea in it’s present form by a nearly 3-1 margin.
Julie Allen, speaking as a private citizen during the last public meeting before voters had their say, was a vocal opponent of the plan as outlined by the commissioners and a private consultant. Allen said she hadn’t planned to speak out, but felt compelled to after fielding numerous phone calls from folks concerned about the cost of the project.
“I’ve lived in this fire district for over 60 years,” she said after the vote. “We are a small rural community, and I care about this community and the firemen… I think the community spoke loudly and clearly.
“The community knows we need a [new] firehouse, and they want what the firemen want and need, but not this particular plan.” Allen described the firefighters as “angry” with voters who rejecting the proposed plan to construct a 15,202 square foot building on a parcel of land swapped with the state, a piece of land located out of the designated flood plain.
Getting the ball rolling
In a letter dated October 23, 2006 to NYS Assemblywoman Aileen M. Gunther, Sullivan County Legislator Elwin “Woody” Wood (District 3), got the ball rolling in the direction of a new firehouse. “Over the past few weeks I have received several letters from our volunteer fire departments in the Town of Rockland,” he said. “Both the Livingston Manor and Roscoe-Rockland Fire Departments sustained damage and lost equipment during the devastating June (2006) floods, and both departments are in need of additional resources and space if they are to be able to continue protecting our communities during fires and natural disasters…”
The letter noted that during the Flood of 2006 and the previous flood event, the Roscoe-Rockland Fire Department had to set up temporary headquarters at the local central school, as their firehouse was under water.
“Like their counterparts in Livingston Manor, the fire department is currently evaluating how to raise funds for this necessary project without hurting taxpayers in their district.”
Gunther was recently able to secure state funding for both local fire districts: $700,000 to Livingston Manor and $600,000 for Roscoe-Rockland.
Allen said that while nobody questions the need for a new firehouse, a lot of folks feel the commissioners were sold a bill of goods in terms of the cost of the proposed fire station, such as $397,000 in consulting fees, $50,000 for landscaping and $121,000 “for somebody to stand around watching it be built.
“I hope the firemen will not be so angry and disappointed, and will work with the community in developing something that is needed and we can afford,” she added. “It’s like a marriage. Do you get divorced after your first fight? The firefighters are wonderful… this wasn’t personal.”
Back to the drawing board?
Pete Passaro, chairman of the Roscoe-Rockland Fire District Commissioners, wasn’t happy with the vote, but took the decision by the taxpayers in stride.
“The vote was very disappointing, but there’s not much you can do when the taxpayers refuse you,” he said. “There’s a lot of disappointment, but there’s not much we can do about it. We’ll have to go back to the drawing board.”
According to Passaro, “the opposition got the seniors panicked a little bit… a lot of senior citizens were anxious about having their taxes go up.”
On the subject of getting more community input into the project, Passaro said there are two slots on the building committee.
“We would welcome town representatives,” he said. “We’re trying to do anything we can to get this thing passed. If the town wants to send representatives, they can and we’ll take their input.”
During the public meeting, the fire commissions said the department was applying for grants, but according to Passaro didn’t elaborate on an important potential federal grant from Homeland Security, an “Assistance to Small Communities” grant, that if the community had okayed, the project and the grant request was approved, could have up 75% of the total cost of the new firehouse. The only catch, was that in order to apply for the grant, voters had to approve the project.
“Grants are grants, it’s like going to a casino,” said Passaro. “They’re structured around small rural fire districts and public facilities whose building costs would be so great that taxpayers wouldn’t be able to afford it.”
During the last public meeting before the vote, several folks from the community asked when couldn’t their local fire district follow in the footsteps of the North Branch firefighters, who recently erected their own firehouse, reportedly to the tune of about $200,000.
Passaro clarified the “apples vs. oranges” issue by explaining that while the neighboring fire district owns their own firehouse, Roscoe-Rockland is owned by the community. “I talked to their chief, and they didn’t have to go to the public,” he said. “They own the land and they built their own firehouse… we’re like the school. We have to go to the public.
“We just can’t go out and build our own firehouse. We’re publically owned and funded. The taxpayers actually own the firehouse, and we have to bid everything out at prevailing union wages,” added Passaro.
One thing everybody seems to agree on is that the 1929 building is no longer adequate to serve to the needs of the local firematics community. With only one door and lots of local traffic, the nightmare of a stalled fire apparatus blocking the egress of the rest of the “stacked” trucks is at the top of the firefighters’ list of worst case scenarios.
“The facility we’re in now is just inadequate, but…[but] this is not something we’re going to sit around and mope over,” added Passaro. “We want to get this thing done and get it done to the satisfaction of the taxpayers.”