Gordon Heights winner sees mandate for change

A firefighter battles a blaze off Wading River

A firefighter battles a blaze off Wading River Road in Manorville during a large brush fire that spread across eastern Long Island. (Credit: Chris Ware, 2012)

Rick Brand

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Joyce Bourne, running to bring down high taxes in the Gordon Heights Fire District, last year lost her race for fire commissioner by one vote.

But Bourne came back last week in a three-way contest -- easily winning a five-year term with 268 votes. She beat longtime commission chairman James Kelly, who got 55 votes, and contender James Freeman, who wound up with 169.

What makes the victory even more significant is that Bourne, 67, who in 1964 marched for civil rights in Kentucky with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., will give those seeking to overhaul the district a 3-2 majority on the fire board.

"I think people have finally woken up; they don't like the idea of having to pay the highest fire taxes in the state," Bourne said. "Now that we have the deciding vote we hopefully will get things done that change things for the better."

Gordon Heights, a largely minority community, has been the poster child for dysfunction among Long Island's myriad special districts. The 1.7-square-mile district, with about 900 homes and little commercial property to share the tax burden, has fire property taxes averaging $1,500 a year -- nearly four times the rate of nearby districts.

The district, with a budget of $1.2 million and 60 volunteers, has in the past come under fire for giving a $1,000 bracelet to a retiring commissioner, spending more than $20,000 on an installation dinner and putting its outside attorney on the district payroll so he could collect state pension credits.

But backers of the current district setup say the department has response times that are among the county's best, and a history as the first black fire department, dating to 1948, in an era when neighboring fire districts did not have to respond beyond their borders.

"In the last few years we have tried to get taxes down -- we've dropped it $230,000," Kelly said after the commissioner vote last week. "But it's not a fast thing. You can't pull the rug from under someone . . . You still have to run a fire department, respond to the community, and you can't go forward without a cost."

Paul Sabatino, the attorney for those seeking changes, said some steps have been made but only under pressure, and that more needs to be done. "It's about shaking up the status quo," he said. If the district "with such an outlandish tax bill" were in a wealthier area such as "Belle Terre or Lloyd Harbor, politicians would be rushing out to fix the system in a New York second."

Since 2008, a group of residents has petitioned Brookhaven Town to dissolve the fire district and instead create a fire protection district. Under a fire protection district, the town would seek proposals to supply services and set the taxes, but local volunteer firefighters still would be used.

Town officials spent $91,000 on a consultant's study that recommended the number of fire vehicles be cut from 19 to six. The study found the fire budget could be cut 47 percent to $746,000 if another district assumed control but left the local firehouse as a substation.

Brookhaven Town board member Connie Kepert said town officials also are considering a political compromise to create a separate ambulance district, now part of the fire district operation.

Bourne and others who have been pushing for change say they expect to have a plan in place by January, when the new board majority takes over.

Last week's election, "certainly does give us momentum," said Rosalie Hanson, who led the 2008 petition drive to dissolve the fire district and whose husband, Alex, is on the fire board.

When Kelly and others "had the majority, town officials had to respect what they had to say," Hanson said. "Now that we have the majority, we hope they'll respect what we have to say."