St. James residents will vote Tuesday on whether to permit the local fire district to sell a taxpayer-owned firehouse on Route 25A to the volunteer fire department.
Most district and department officials favor the $500,000 sale, which they say will unburden the district of a building too old to function as a modern firehouse and provide funds for consolidation of operations at the newer Jefferson Avenue station to the south. Some firefighting equipment could even be kept at the Route 25A firehouse after a sale, they said.
Opponents including Troy Rosasco, head of a group that supports keeping the station open and publicly owned, say that the district needs to keep a strong presence at the Route 25A firehouse to ensure safe response times in the northern part of the hamlet. And, they say, a building that is a historic icon for the hamlet should be publicly owned.
The fire department owned the firehouse from 1922 to 2013, when members sold to the fire district. Commissioners hoped the district could make bond-funded improvements that the department could not, but voters rejected multimillion-dollar bond referendums in 2013 and 2017. The original sales contract gave the department right of first refusal and entitled it to buy the building back at a price approximately equal to the original $500,000 sale price.
The vote follows the Friday release of a report, by a public safety consultant commissioned by the district, that strongly recommends a vote delay to allow for an “extensive community and member driven” examination of all potential uses for the station and other district properties.
The district received Fayetteville, New York-based Ron Graner’s report May 28 but did not release it, citing “concerns over the methodology used and the validity of the information” in a message on the district website.
District Commissioner Edward Springer said Friday that elements of the report, including new firehouse configurations for a district expanded to include Head of the Harbor Village, were fanciful.
The village now pays the district $319,000 annually for fire protection, a sum that Springer said is substantially less than residents would pay as district taxpayers. Springer said that talks with village Mayor Douglas Dahlgard more than a year ago had been inconclusive.
Graner recommended two firehouse configurations for an expanded district. One calls for new vehicle bays and storage behind the Route 25A firehouse, which would be renovated to provide bunk rooms and offices for personnel. The second calls for purchase of five vacant acres next to Head of the Harbor Village Hall, preserving the Route 25A firehouse for public use. In either case, the district could sell or lease part of its Jefferson Avenue property to fund new construction and operations.
The report did not include cost estimates for those configurations. Springer said the district’s $2.7 million budget, the lowest of Smithtown’s six districts, made those scenarios infeasible. However, Graner wrote, commissioners had an opportunity to notify him of any errors in the report before it was finalized; they did not, he said.
Waiting for further study was a poor option, Springer said. “If the community comes back” through the vote “and says ‘You’re going to keep the firehouse,’ we’ll take it from there. I want an answer now.”
Rosasco said the district’s decision to withhold the report would influence the vote. “I don’t think the public is going to stand for these types of shenanigans by public officials, and I think they’re going to take their disgust out at the ballot box.”
Voting is from 3 to 9 p.m. at the Jefferson Avenue firehouse.