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St. James Fire District readies for vote on new headquarters

Residents attend a public hearing Aug. 29, 2017,

Residents attend a public hearing Aug. 29, 2017, at the Jefferson Avenue firehouse about the St. James Fire District's upcoming vote on its plan to demolish the facility and build a new fire headquarters there. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

The Smithtown hamlet of St. James is readying for a Sept. 19 vote on a $12.25 million plan to build a new central fire headquarters, but residents are divided over what would be the St. James Fire District’s biggest expenditure in decades.

District officials say the state of its two firehouses has become a safety issue for both firefighters and residents, aggravated by layout problems that interfere with the department’s response to emergency calls.

Under the proposal, they would demolish the existing station at 221 Jefferson Ave. to make way for a new, larger, 22,000-square-foot headquarters. District and department operations would continue uninterrupted elsewhere on the property during construction, district officials said.

The project’s bond funding would raise the fire district property tax rate by about 37 percent, to $145.44 per $1,000 of assessed value.

Some residents expressed exasperation over the proposed tax hike at a hearing held last week in the truck bay of the Jefferson Avenue firehouse and in later interviews.

“I’m going through a lot of money,” said Tony Costaro, 75, a retired newspaper deliveryman who said in an interview that he and his wife, who live on a fixed income, went as far as to install solar panels on their roof a few years ago to offset the rising cost of staying in their home.

Their total yearly $9,300 property tax bill would increase by about $200 if the bond passes, he said.

His neighbors also are stretched, he said. “Most of these people got one or two jobs,” he noted. “The wife’s working, they’re working.”

The new, two-story headquarters would include meeting rooms, offices, a kitchen and a recreation room. Some meeting attendees asked whether officials had considered cheaper options in design and materials.

But district officials said state building codes, contracting rules and the needs of the department left them little discretion to cut construction costs.

“We’re not looking for a Taj Mahal,” said Edward Springer, one of the district commissioners. “We’re looking for a place to house our members to be safe. . . . We’re trying to invest your money the best way we can.”

One resident, Peter Baumert, warned his neighbors that they might come to regret their penny-pinching.

“Think about the day when you pick up a phone and your grandchild” needs help, he said. “I just want the response. When I pick up the phone, I know my family’s protected.”

The department has 110 volunteers who protect about 4,500 homes. They answered 1,298 emergency calls in 2016 and are on pace to top that number this year.

Regardless of the vote’s outcome, district officials say, they will sell the Route 25A firehouse, which is aging and little-used — but the sale proceeds wouldn’t come close to covering the cost of the new headquarters, Springer said.

To Katherine Keegan, 30, an NYPD officer who volunteers about 20 hours a month as a firefighter and paramedic with St. James, the need for a new, larger building is obvious. Firefighters gearing up inches away from running trucks run the risk of being hit, she said in an interview. A trailer in the Jefferson Avenue parking lot that houses the district’s offices is hazardous for drivers and firefighters scrambling to a call, she said.

And she added there needs to be space for first responders “to decompress after a bad call.”

Proposed new St. James fire headquarters

Cost: $12.25 million

Size: 22,000 square feet

Firehouse information tours: Sept. 9, 14 and 17

Vote: Sept. 19, 3 to 9 p.m. at the Jefferson Avenue firehouse. Election District 79 residents vote at Fairfield Condos at St. James. There will be no absentee ballots.

Source: St. James Fire District

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