Few vote in fire district elections, two uncontested commissioner votes on Tuesday

Enterprise file photo -- Michael Koff
Berne fire trucks help form a Memorial Day parade in town.

HILLTOWNS — On Dec. 10, from 6 to 9 p.m., the fire districts of Berne and Knox will hold elections for a new cycle of fire commissioners. In the Berne Fire District, Justin Crosier is seeking election, uncontested. In the Knox Fire District, David Poole is seeking re-election, uncontested. 

By state law, non-municipal fire districts have five commissioners who each serve five-year terms. These terms are staggered so that one term ends each year and voters have the chance to elect a new official. 

However, some elections seek to fill more than one position in the event of a death or early resignation. In those cases, an official is either elected or appointed to fulfill the unfinished term. All commissioners are unpaid. 

Only residents living within a fire district can vote in that district’s elections. 

The Westerlo Volunteer Fire Company is municipal and does not have a board of commissioners. 

Municipal fire departments receive money from the towns they serve, while departments like Knox and Berne receive money directly from residents in their districts through tax levies. The Berne fire district is projected to collect $394,310 through property taxes in 2020. The Knox fire district is slated for $293,200.

 

Berne Fire District

Justin Crosier, 37, has been involved in public welfare since he was 16 years old. Following in his father’s footsteps, Crosier first started volunteering for the Berne Fire Company and eventually became a paid firefighter for the city of Albany, as well as a paramedic.

“When I became a professional firefighter in Albany [14 years ago], I was no longer allowed to volunteer because of cancer bills and additional liabilities,” Crosier said. “This is a way to keep my foot in the door.”

This would be Crosier’s first elected term, but he’s served a total of three years as commissioner in various appointments, covering vacated seats. 

As commissioner, Crosier will be responsible for providing input and voting on how the fire district uses its budget. At the top of his mind when making decisions about that money, Crosier said, is the taxpayer.

“We’re using taxpayer money to do what we’re doing,” he explained. “You can’t just go in there and raise taxes and do whatever you want. You still have to answer to the taxpayer when you’re deciding what’s best for the town and the safety of the firefighters.”

 

Voter turnout

Although fire districts have the ability to levy property taxes independently from town government, the number of voters per district fall far below those of other local elections. 

“For all this work, typically only a handful of folks (20-30) may show up for an election,” Knox Fire District Secretary Frank Fuss told The Enterprise in an email. “Most voters are firefighters or members of the firefighters’ families. If another issue (a new fire truck, or maybe a new fire station) is on the ballot, there may be a large turnout.”

“I think that the voter turnout is determined by who’s running,” said Berne Fire District Secretary Kimberly Collins, who also suggested a lack of awareness. 

Last year, 163 people showed up to vote for a new fire commissioner in Berne after the Berne GOP chairman, Randy Bashwinger, endorsed William Keal and canvassed on his behalf. Keal won the election with 96 votes. Meanwhile, in Berne, 13 voters cast a ballot.

“Before I was secretary, I never voted in the commissioner elections,” Collins admitted.

But it’s not just voting. 

Every month, the two districts’ boards of commissioners meet to decide on purchases and budget changes, but these meetings are usually poorly attended, according to Crosier.

“To be honest, it’s just the secretary, the commissioners themselves, the treasurer, and a couple of people who are familiar with or part of the company,” said Crosier of the Berne Fire District’s monthly meetings.

Fire districts create budgets themselves, just as a town board does, and they follow the same budget deadlines as the town, and hold budget workshops where people can come and voice their concerns about budget proposals for the upcoming year. But people rarely do, said Crosier.

He suspects residents don’t understand the degree of independence fire districts have from their town, where board meetings often draw the attention of concerned residents.

“The fire district is a separate entity from the town and we set our own tax rates,” Crosier said. “I think when people get their tax bill and see the fire department on there, they assume it all goes through the town.”

And, unlike in town board meetings, fire district politics rarely flare up to create riveting theater. In Knox, proposed zoning changes generated three years of debate, controversy, and letters to the Enterprise editor. In Berne, this year, disputes between board members turned into a vote on increased security measures and triggered conduct investigations. Both these issues made for packed town halls. 

“Obviously, with Knox rezoning 12 acres, that affects everybody in the town,” said Crosier. “That’s more politically driven. It’s Republicans versus Democrats. The fire commission doesn’t have any of that.

“Usually the only time anybody really notices is when we put out a public notice about a purchase of a new engine that’s $500,000 or an upcoming firehouse that’s upwards of a million dollars,” Crosier continued. “Any time people’s taxes go up, they’re paying attention to why their taxes are going up.” 

According to Crosier, though, a small company like Berne’s that fields about 100 calls a year doesn’t require many attention-grabbing purchases.

“We purchase a truck maybe once every 10 years,” he said. “There’s really not much going on.”

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    Read or listen to Berne-Knox-Westerlo Board of Education incumbent Kimberly Lovell’s responses to questions from The Enterprise about the school’s budget; the relationship between a school board, district superintendent, and taxpayers; and what issues will be most critical to the district in the next three years.

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