St. James Fire District residents vote on a referendum this spring over a contested plan to sell a taxpayer-owned firehouse at Route 25A and Lake Avenue to the local fire department for $500,000.
District officials, most of whom favor the sale, said the district can no longer afford the upkeep and utilities on the building that top $50,000 annually. They would use the proceeds to fund improvements at the district’s Jefferson Avenue firehouse, a newer facility about a mile to the south and which they said is cheaper to maintain and better suited for a modern department. Most department activities already are based there.
Regardless of the vote, they said, they will consolidate operations there at the end of the year, using the older building for storage and administration if voters forbid its sale.
“We are in a bind,” said Ed Springer, one of five elected commissioners in charge of the district’s $2.7 million budget, which funds fire and medical response for about 6,050 homes in St. James and Head of the Harbor Village. Without a significant commercial tax base, the fire district’s tax rate of $126.767 per $1,000 of assessed value is the highest in the Town of Smithtown, and the district struggles to pay for essential items such as breathing apparatus for firefighters, he said. “Everybody’s looking to save money, and we’re doing it by consolidating,” he said.
But some worry the northern portion of the hamlet will be endangered if the firehouse closes. They include Troy Rosasco, a Head of the Harbor resident who heads a group, Citizens for a Safer St. James, that supports keeping the station open and publicly owned.
The village’s residents pay for fire protection but are not fire district voters.
“Common sense will tell you that the response time will not be as good” without it, Rosasco said. “We all want to maintain the firehouse on [Route] 25A, and we have these rogue commissioners who truly believe they are right, and the community is wrong.”
His group supported the December election of Joe Kuethen, a Suffolk County fire marshal who is the only district commissioner to oppose the sale. Most of the 13 firefighters who work out of the Route 25A (North Country Road) firehouse live closer to it than they do to Jefferson Avenue, Kuethen said.
The district is a political entity responsible for administration and levying taxes for fire protection; the department is a private nonprofit whose volunteer members answer emergency calls. All five district commissioners currently serving are department members.
The May 15 vote will follow years of failed efforts by district officials to expand facilities. Hoping to make bond-funded improvements that the department could not, they bought the Route 25A building from the fire department in 2013 for $500,000. Their contract entitled the department to buy the building at that price, should the district decide to sell. Most commissioners decided to sell after voters rejected referendums in 2013 and 2017 that would have steered millions of tax dollars toward construction.
Should the department buy the old firehouse, all 140 members would vote on what to do with it. Reselling it on the open market could bring much more than $500,000, money that Glen Itzkowitz, chairman of the department’s governing board, said could be spent on training or scholarships.
His own hope is for the department to buy the building, rent space to the district and keep some equipment there.
In a department where “tradition and sentiment run deep,” firefighters would act as stewards for a community landmark, Itzkowitz said.