St. James Fire District commissioners have postponed a bond referendum next month to fund construction of a new $12 million headquarters, citing the need to first secure Town of Smithtown zoning variances for the planned building.
Commissioners have also postponed informational meetings that had been planned for March and April. Another vote could be four to six months away, they said in interviews last week.
Commissioners say the new headquarters is needed to accommodate fire trucks that can barely fit into existing truck bays and to replace aging, water-damaged facilities. They also say that consolidation of the district’s two current firehouses into one would speed response time on the roughly 1,300 fire and rescue calls the department answers every year.
The district, with a $2.3 million budget, serves 4,500 homes and fields a volunteer force of about 120 firefighters, EMTs and paramedics.
“We have outgrown our present buildings, and they are structurally no longer sound,” said Commissioner Edward Springer. “We’re looking ahead to the next 50 years.”
Should the vote pass, district officials would combine department resources now at two sites into one facility at Woodland and Jefferson Avenues. The substation there now would be razed and replaced by a two-story, 22,458-square foot building in 2019.
The firehouse at Lake Avenue and North Country Road would be sold, with proceeds going into district reserves. Officials said they could not estimate the market value of the main firehouse. State law would make it impractical to use proceeds from the sale to defray the cost of new construction, they said.
To pay for the project, the district would likely use a 20-year bond at a yearly cost of $35 to $40 per $1,000 of assessed value per home. The current tax rate is $106 per $1000 of assessed value.
District officials said they had only recently learned that they would need zoning variances for building height and setback for the planned headquarters, and that they planned to apply for them within weeks.
Voters overwhelmingly rejected an $8.75 million bond proposal in 2013 that would have expanded the two existing firehouses, with some describing planned changes as unnecessary or wasteful.
Springer and William Kearney, another commissioner, said in an interview last week that poor messaging was partly to blame for that defeat. The district is now working with a public relations firm, they said.
Some residents remain skeptical of the project. Karl Walz Jr., a marine equipment salesman who opposed the 2013 proposal, said he wanted reassurance about the size of the planned firehouse and about possible future cost increases in the district before bond payments grew his tax bill.
“That’s a big increase for the next 20 years,” he said.