Longtime leader ousted in Gordon Heights fire district

Change has come to the Gordon Heights Fire District with the election Tuesday of a commissioner who gives budget-cutters a majority on the board.

Officials confirmed Joyce Bourne Wednesday as the newly elected commissioner -- with 268 votes to incumbent James Kelly's 55 and challenger James Freeman's 169.

Bourne joins two other commissioners on the five-member board who support reducing the budget of Long Island's most heavily taxed fire district.

Bourne, 67, of Middle Island, said the vote is a clear mandate for change. She wants to quickly work on curtailing spending and reducing the tax burden. "We will do so immediately," she said. "It's time to go forward."

Gordon Heights serves about 900 homes in the Town of Brookhaven. The taxes -- four times the Long Island average -- are high in part because the 1.7-square-mile residential district draws no commercial property tax revenue.

The district, which has long come under fire for spending and survived a campaign to dissolve it in 2008, has become a statewide emblem of the problems of special districts.

Brookhaven officials have commissioned studies into alternatives, such as taking over the district's finances, creating an ambulance district or merging the district with a neighboring fire service. Supporters have said the district is necessary for safety reasons -- and because it is historically significant as Suffolk County's first all-black force.

The town board's analysis of the district came to a halt when former Supervisor Mark Lesko resigned in September to take a new job, Councilwoman Connie Kepert said. Under new Supervisor Ed Romaine, Kepert hopes discussions will soon resume.

"It's going to be up to the community," she said of the district's fate. "Certainly, the people of Gordon Heights have spoken, so we will see."

Kelly, a 36-year volunteer firefighter who had been on the board for 15 years, pledged cooperation. "We just have to be more efficient . . . We really have to sit down as people and see what we can do as a community," he said.

Commissioner Alex Hanson, part of Bourne's group, said the district has already trimmed spending in this year's $1.27-million budget. "We will continue in the direction we had been . . . reducing the budget while maintaining the services."

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