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Fire district told to cut, or clear out

Firefighter Carter Brown, right, and fire chief Erton

Firefighter Carter Brown, right, and fire chief Erton Rudder stand inside the Gordon Heights Fire District station. (Jan. 15, 2010) Credit: Ed Betz

Cut back or close down.

The Gordon Heights Fire District - the most-taxed special district on Long Island - should slash expenditures by 40 percent and submit to enhanced oversight by Brookhaven Town, or face dissolution, according to a consultant's report released Monday by the town.

The study was in response to a petition drive by residents who have opposed the 900-home district's taxes, which are more than $1,200 per year for the owner of a home with a market value of $200,000. Gordon Heights' tax rate is nearly double that of the next-highest fire district in Brookhaven.

The $91,000 report, financed by the town and completed by an Oregon firm, Emergency Services Consulting International, states that if fire district leadership is "unwilling to submit" to greater oversight, the town should dissolve the Gordon Heights district, create a fire protection district and put out to bid a contract for fire and ambulance service from another fire district.

The two options will be the subject of community meetings and eventually a town public hearing, which will be followed by a town board vote, said Councilwoman Connie Kepert, who represents the area.

"We're going to have to make some hard choices," said Kepert, who declined to take a stance but said "dissolution or reduction of service" will almost definitely befall the district, which has a $1.4 million budget.

Town Supervisor Mark Lesko declined to comment.

Fire District Commissioner James Kelly said he understands the taxpayers' concerns, but added that the Gordon Heights district is a community fixture. It was Suffolk's first all-black fire fighting force, founded in the 1940s.

"You have to come up with an answer that's going to be beneficial to you and for everybody else," he said.

Paul Sabatino, a Huntington attorney who has been working with the group that has been advocating for dissolving and replacing the district, said the report's findings are a victory for his clients.

"It vindicates what the sponsors of the petition have been saying the past five years," he said.

Gina Previte, a resident among the group spearheading the petition, agreed with Sabatino that drastically cutting expenses did not seem like a viable option for the tiny district, which has little commercial property, leaving residents to carry the tax burden.

"You don't have the economy of scale," she said. "We are concerned for our vulnerability in the future."

Districts named in the report as candidates to shoulder some of Gordon Heights' calls if the district disbands were Medford, Coram, Middle Island and Yaphank.

Medford Commissioner Frank Grande said his district is taking a "wait and see" approach for the time being.

"Initially, we felt it would put a big strain on our resources," he said. "We are having enough trouble responding to our own calls."

A representative from the Middle Island district said officials there will wait to digest the report before taking a stance. Attempts to contact Yaphank and Coram fire officials were not successful.


Options outlined in study


The 154-page Fire District Dissolution Study, authored by Emergency Services Consulting International at the request of Brookhaven Town, outlines four options for the Gordon Heights Fire District and recommends two of them:

Preferred Option One

Maintain status quo but with substantial financial cutbacks, reductions and oversight by the town. Those cuts could mean a 39.5 percent reduction in the total budget and tax rate.

Agree to oversight by the town.

Among the suggested cutbacks:

Sell off 13 of the 19 district vehicles.

Dissolve two salaried positions (excluding ambulance staff) and combine the secretary, treasurer and clerk positions into one slot.

Contract out for auto maintenance and have the volunteers clean the building.

Preferred Option Two

If the district does not agree to oversight and cuts, the report recommends the district be dissolved and that a fire protection district be created.

The new district would contract with providers for fire and emergency services through competitive bidding.

There would be competition in the bid process. Volunteers most likely could still serve out of the historic fire house.

Other findings:

Gordon Heights has the highest fire district tax rate on Long Island. In Brookhaven, Gordon Heights Fire District residents average $60.83 per $100 assessed value, 89 percent higher than the next highest - the nearby Coram Fire District at $32.217.

In 2009, 155 of the 605 EMS calls were for runs made outside the district in what is called "mutual aid" calls. The report recommends limiting those runs.

Consolidation with any of the four bordering fire districts would mean a slight increase in taxes for that district's residents and much lower taxes but longer response times for Gordon Heights residents.

Average response time in Gordon Heights now is 14 minutes, 43 seconds on 90 percent of calls - 5 minutes, 43 seconds longer than the national standard.

Cost per EMS incident for Gordon Heights is $1,247.37; nearby Medford Ambulance's cost per incident is $579.59.

Source: Fire District Dissolution Study by Emergency Services Consulting International

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