VOTERS in 126 fire districts across Long Island on Tuesday will select commissioners who collectively control $311 million in spending and set tax levies.
While the elections don't address budgets as they do for school districts, fire district commissioners also determine fire protection policies and buy equipment.
After a 2005 Newsday series revealed excessive and unaccountable spending by some fire districts, state laws were passed mandating more transparency in district operations, including having all districts hold elections on the second Tuesday in December.
This year, districts scrambled to prepare for the vote after learning they can't use new optical voting machines. As of last week, more than 100 districts had ordered the old lever-style machines even though state law prohibits their use.
Many district commissioners are running unopposed. Among the contested races, a handful of newcomers are challenging incumbents:
A volunteer firefighter who says this Suffolk County department needs more fiscal control and greater racial diversity hopes to unseat a 25-year district commissioner.
Eric Spronz, who has volunteered with the department for three years, cited a June state comptroller's report that accused the district of violating state bidding law and failing to supervise its treasurer. He also said the district needs to be more aggressive about recruiting minorities and women.
His opponent, commissioner Vandorn Johnson, said the district has strengthened its financial oversight since the comptroller's report and Spronz's accusation about recruiting is "totally misinformed."
A former commissioner and supporter of this Suffolk County district is challenging a commissioner who supports dissolving the district, which has Long Island's highest fire taxes.
Commissioner Maryanne Owens has called for a public hearing to dissolve the 900-home district, which has an average per-household tax bill of more than $1,300.
Still, Owens said she wants to remain on the board to maintain "dialogue" between district supporters and opponents.
Challenger Chesley Ruffin, who was a commissioner twice before, said response times "would definitely suffer" if the district merged with another.
Commissioner Christian Pieper, a 22-year volunteer and former department chief, faces two challengers.
The district, with an average annual tax bill of $300 per household, has Nassau's largest 2011 fire budget, at $7.29 million. Pieper said he was proud to increase spending by just 1.2 percent despite a 15 percent rise in pension and insurance costs.
One of Pieper's opponents, 19-year volunteer Rohit Dhawan, said the district needs a "breath of fresh air" - someone willing to reduce the operating budget and stop discussions about expanding department buildings. The other candidate, former volunteer Robert Manfredonia, lost to Pieper in the 2007 election. Manfredonia did not respond to a request for comment.
Mike Antonucci is seeking his fourth five-year term against challenger John Cassese Jr., a retired electrician and 19-year volunteer. Commissioners in the Nassau County district will manage a 2011 budget of $2.25 million, identical to 2010.
Antonucci, a 35-year volunteer, is also superintendent of the Wantagh Fire District. He said the experience in Wantagh helped his management of North Massapequa's spending. Cassese said that while the district had few major issues, he would still like to find a way to decrease the budget.
Seven candidates are running for two commissioner seats in the Nassau County fire district. Incumbent Les Saltzman faces Jerry Nappi, Louis Collins and Howard Block for one five-year seat. Newcomers Chris Baktis, Frank Cutolo, and George Fahrbach are running for a two-year seat that will be vacated by its present commissioner.
With Stacey Altherr
and Paul LaRocco