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Head of the Harbor in dispute over fire protection costs

The St. James Fire District provides coverage for

The St. James Fire District provides coverage for Head of the Harbor.  Credit: James Carbone

Head of the Harbor Village and St. James Fire District officials are embroiled in a dispute over the cost of the district’s fire and emergency services, with a Jan. 16 village hearing looming for the contract that would offer coverage this year.  

The village is not part of the district, but has for years contracted with it for coverage because it does not have its own fire department. Under the 2019 contract under consideration, the district would charge the village $399,156, a 25 percent increase over 2018. District commissioners said that increase is only the first in a series needed for the village to pay its fair share; village trustees said the increase breaks with a pricing method both sides have used for years.

“They sprung this on us,” Mayor Douglas Dahlgard said at a Dec. 19 village board meeting. “It really wasn’t fair.”

Previously, the fire district based the fee it charged the village on a formula that derived the average cost of protection per household by dividing the total district budget by the number of households served. Under that formula, the average cost per household was more than $600. In 2018, when the total district budget was $2.7 million and the village had about 525 homes, the district charged the village $319,325.

That charge was incorporated in the village tax bill, yielding an effective coverage rate of $68.54 per $1,000 of assessed value, trustee Jeffrey Fischer said at that meeting. The district tax rate last year was $126.77 per $1,000 of assessed value, and for 2019 the rate is $127.27 per $1,000.

Fire commissioners said that the average cost formula is unfair because property values tend to be significantly higher in the village than in the hamlet of St. James. “You’re equating one of St. James’ two-bedroom houses to Mr. Mercer’s property,” Commissioner William Kearny said in an interview, referring to billionaire Robert Mercer, whose estate is in the village.

Commissioners said the village fee should be based directly on the assessed value of property there. They said that raising the amount the village pays would allow them to drop the overall district tax rate and increase services.  They intend in coming years to raise protection fees until they equal what villagers would pay as district residents. Kearny said little incentive to negotiate gentler terms, paraphrasing a comment he said he’d heard numerous times from residents at district meetings last year: “Why am I, the working class of St. James, supporting the quote wealthy people of Head of the Harbor?”

Another factor was the public advocacy from Dahlgard and some village residents for the district to keep open the historic firehouse on Route 25A, and to base an engine there. Kearny and Edward Springer, Sr., an outgoing commissioner, said they resented what they saw as management interference from a customer. 

Their strategy could prod the village to join the district or to find a new protector, something trustees said they tried without success this year. 

Other solutions, which Dahlgard said might come only with help from the Town of Smithtown, could be consolidation of protection services, redrawing some of the lines of the many districts that now cover the area or combining some districts. 

“If you look at New York City, they have one fire department, five boroughs, and it works,” he said.

Thomas McKevitt, a municipal law expert and Nassau County legislator, said the village’s options are limited, at least in the near term. Village officials “ have to provide” fire service, he said, and “they made a choice quite some time ago that they would rather contract than have their own department.”

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