GFD should not turn its back on the law

“Volunteer Fire Departments are, when the alarm goes off, almost the only example of enthusiastic unselfishness to be seen in this land,” wrote Kurt Vonnegut Jr. In his novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. “They rush to the rescue of any human being, and count not the cost.”

We have long loved those words and believe them to be true. Our newspaper this week is publishing its annual tribute to lifesaving volunteers, the men and women who put in countless hours of training and make themselves available to respond when needed, day or night.

The communities we cover have traditionally supported those volunteers, with the equipment and firehouses they have requested. But for support to be genuine, a fire district has to abide by the law.

The law in question is set up so that the public is informed of bond votes.

Citizens, of course, have to do their part in staying informed. At a time when many are complaining about high taxes, too few know about the layers of government that serve them. Fire protection, as we’ve written before, is a good example.

In New York State, cities and villages are required to provide fire protection, typically through a municipal department. That means, in our coverage area, the fire departments in the villages of Altamont and Voorheesville must get their funds through the village board as part of the village budget. Elected municipal representatives make the decisions on funding.

Towns, by state law, are not allowed to provide fire protection as a municipal function. Fire protection in the towns we cover — Guilderland, New Scotland, and the Hilltowns — is provided through fire districts, separate units of local government overseen by an elected board of commissioners.  The fire district system was set up by the state legislature in 1932. Fire districts get over 90 percent of their revenue from property taxes, according to the Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness.

Fire districts hold public bond votes for large expenditures, like equipment purchases or building expansions. All across the state, low turnout is typical for such votes. The commission reported that 68 voters approved a $3.2 million firehouse in Greece, N.Y., and that much of the area covered by the new firehouse is within one-and-a-half miles of other firehouses.

Locally, in June of 2009, twenty-one people cast their ballots in a Guilderland Center Fire District vote to bond a $400,000 fire truck. The vote was 17 to 4.

In March 2010, voters in Westmere approved a $5 million expansion to the firehouse in that district by a vote of 254 to 123.

Before the vote, The Enterprise took an in-depth look at the eight fire departments that cover the town of Guilderland, which has a population of roughly 34,000. Three of the departments — McKownville, Westmere, and Guilderland — have firehouses on Western Avenue within a 4.46-mile stretch. The Guilderland Center firehouse, on School Road, is 3.4 miles from the Guilderland firehouse, and the Fort Hunter firehouse, on Carman Road, is 3.25 miles from the Guilderland firehouse.

The combined budgets for the five departments located solely within the town — and excluding the village of Altamont — totaled nearly $3 million at that time. The equipment for the Guilderland fire departments equaled or exceeded that for the neighboring city of Albany, serving about 95,000 people in a more compact area (each had two rescue rigs and eight pumper engines, for example).

The leaders of the fire companies agreed that the separate departments are necessary, to maintain camaraderie essential for recruitment and to prevent increased response time.

We felt comfortable, having laid all this out beforehand that, when the Westmere bond passed, the public had been informed.

That was not the case with the Aug. 27 vote for a $3.9 million expansion of the Guilderland firehouse. Before and after the vote, we heard from citizens who felt the vote wasn’t publicized or was being conducted under the radar, or that the needs hadn’t been adequately explained.

One resident, Linda Chaffee, wrote us a letter noting that the required one-inch legal notice published in The Enterprise “stated only that the board of fire commissioners would hold a special meeting on July 8, 2013 at the firehouse.” The second “hidden” notice, she wrote, “at least mentioned” two informational sessions.

Chaffee said she wouldn’t have known about the vote if it weren’t for the Enterprise’s front-page story on Aug. 22. That article reported that no one attended the first hearing, one department member attended the second, and the third had four attendees. Chaffee concluded, “A total of five attendees at three meetings should have given them an indication that their notification process, although possibly meeting legal requirements, certainly wasn’t sufficient for a project of this size.”

Chaffee dug further and learned that the district did not comply with New York State Town Law. The section on Fire Protection Districts states that a fire district secretary must provide notice of an upcoming hearing or election to be posted on the website of any town within the boundaries of the district, and that the notice must be posted at least 15 days before the hearing or election. The district had not posted notices about its public hearings on the town’s website.

Chaffee, who stated she grew up in a proud family of volunteer firemen and had always supported the Guilderland department, said she voted against the bond because she believed the vote was “hidden with the intent of circumventing those of us who will be paying the bills.”

David Messercola, chairman of the board of fire commissioners, told our Guilderland reporter, Anne Hayden Harwood, that the commissioners discussed the charge Chaffee had raised and decided that the district had complied enough with the state law that a court would not uphold a challenge to the bond vote.

“It was a minor infraction,” Messercola said, “and we are moving forward.”

The fire district’s lawyer, William Young, echoed those sentiments: “We don’t think there is enough infraction that a court would force a revote.” He said Chaffee could take it to court.

Chaffee responded that she could not afford an attorney to take it to court.

Nor should she have to. What do the 41 volunteers of the fire company think?

Why give your time, and maybe even your life, to an organization that will now have a cloud hanging over it? Pride for the Guilderland Fire Department should shine as bright as its engines.

Messercola said that Chaffee’s accusation was “downright offensive.”

Chaffee responded, “I’m not trying to get them in trouble. I’m just trying to get them to be open and honest.”

Citizens must be informed to govern well. The law should be a baseline. Elected leaders, like fire commissioners, or school board members, or library trustees, should go beyond the minimum required by law to inform citizens — holding information sessions, distributing fliers, writing letters to the editor, reaching out to residents in any way possible.

Not to meet even the minimum requirement is a violation of public trust as well as a violation of the law. There is nothing “minor” about it. If most residents of the fire district didn’t know about the project, how could they vote on it? Admitting an infraction, but ignoring its import is unwise. Why follow the law only if a court forces you to?

The Guilderland Fire District has a chance to make this right — not by criticizing a citizen who had the courage to speak out, but by scheduling another vote, posting notices as required, and reaching beyond, to inform the public. Why tarnish the sterling reputation of a volunteer firefighter?

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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