On Tuesday, Dec. 10, Setauket Fire District residents will choose between two candidates for a five-year term as fire commissioner, incumbent Kevin Yoos and challenger Billy Williams.
The race began with four candidates, but two petitions from volunteer firefighters Tom Gulbransen and Fred Leute were disqualified by the district. Gulbransen initially planned to continue to run as a write-in candidate but later said he has pulled out of the race entirely.
In the Setauket Fire District, the addition of three paid firefighters in 2018 has weighed heavily on many volunteers’ minds, and both candidates are looking to work to boost morale while recruiting and retaining volunteers.
Meet the candidates
Incumbent Kevin Yoos
Fire commissioner Kevin Yoos, 49, has served one partial and one full-term and has been a volunteer firefighter for the Setauket Fire Department for 31 years.
The lifelong Three Village resident and his wife, Lisa, have two daughters in college. He recently retired after 24 years as a lieutenant of Squad Company 270 with the New York City Fire Department, which he joined after a short stint with the New York Police Department. His firehouse in South Queens responds to some 300 fires a year. He is a risk control consultant for fire department insurance and teaches at the Suffolk County Fire Academy of Yaphank as well as the New York State Academy of Fire Science.
He became involved in the Setauket Fire Department 31 years ago after watching his father, who joined in 1973 and was a former commissioner, respond to emergency calls. Yoos was 14 when he joined the junior fire company, and in 1988, at the age of 18, he joined as a full member. He has served as lieutenant captain, assistant chief and chief of department twice.
He said with a lot on his plate, he came close to not running again, but when he decided to retire, he had a conversation with his wife who agreed that with him now having more free time on his hands, he should run again.
“It’s in my blood,” he said. “It’s never going to go away.”
Challenger Billy Williams
Billy Williams, 52, is a State Farm Agent in Setauket. He and his wife Denise have four children — three in college and one in ninth grade. Williams moved to Stony Brook in 1998.
Watching his grandfather and uncles in the Southold department, he said he always wanted to be just like them. Having grown up in Syosset, he applied to FDNY but it took a few years before he was accepted, and by that time he was married in Florida with a business and was unable to join. When he moved back to New York, his office was in White Plains for more than 10 years, and when he moved his office to Setauket, closer to home, the first thing he did was sign up to volunteer.
A six-year volunteer with the department, Williams said he wants to get spending under control and manage the assets they have as well as raise morale while working on recruitment and retention. He added that being a fireman has nothing to do with being a fire commissioner, who helps to run the business side of things.
“The chiefs and the department take care of the day-to-day operations of putting out the fires and getting the ambulance,” Williams said. “The commissioners do what’s in the best interest of the taxpayers.”
Williams said there is a need for leadership to run the business end and bring the departments and the district back together, adding he feels with running a business since 1994 and managing employees and balancing budgets, he would be an asset to the district. In addition to his work in the insurance industry, he is the president of the Three Village Kiwanis Club and on the board of the local chamber of commerce. He said he also helped to bring back annual events, including the Three Village Electric Holiday Parade which was on hiatus for a year.
“I just think I know what the community needs and what the department needs,” he said. “So, I’m the guy.”
Williams said the district spent $4.8 million net in 2015 and $8.1 million net in 2019 and there will be a $300,000 increase in 2020. He said with construction on the Main Street firehouse and the purchase of new fire trucks and brand new radios he doesn’t know how commissioners can say it will not affect residents.
“I don’t know what they’re doing, but you don’t increase your spending by about 70 percent and say that taxes are going to stay the same and that there’s going to be no cost,” Williams said.
Yoos said there was an increase in taxes a few years back after residents approved the bond for the new headquarters building on Main Street. In addition, new portable radios, radio infrastructure, air packs, stretchers for the ambulances, added law-mandated cancer insurance for the volunteers and other items were purchased.
“The equipment replaced was costing a lot to try to maintain and becoming less reliable and unsafe for members to operate,” Yoos said.
He added that the public referendum vote for a municipal lease/purchase agreement for new fire trucks will be supplemented by funds that were put in the reserve account.
“Purchasing these vehicles in bulk in this manner is saving the community approximately $400,000,” he said. “Since the money is already allocated for the reserve account for vehicles the payments for the new engines will come out of this line item. So there will be no increase to taxes for the purchase.”
When it comes to fire services, Yoos said he and other commissioners do a lot of reading and research when it comes to trends and statistics. And at times, revisit decisions.
“As we continue to pay off the bond, we will continually revisit the budget requirements, and it is very likely we will be able to reduce taxes while maintaining the same level of service,” Yoos said.
Last year the Setauket Fire District changed paid fire coordinator positions into paid firefighters, a move that many, including Williams, said has hurt the morale in the departments.
He said while he believes the hybrid that exists right now is a good mix, he doesn’t want to see it become all paid, which he believes the current leadership wants, because he said he feels there’s no need for it with Setauket responding to more EMT calls than fires.
“We’re spending money that we don’t need to spend, in my opinion,” he said.
Yoos said it’s not true that the board wants a paid department.
“If we can handle this 100 percent as volunteers, we’re all in,” Yoos said. “The problem is our volunteers are dwindling, and we need to rebuild that somehow.”
Yoos said he hopes to make a better environment for the volunteers but going forward with the few paid firefighters was something they had to do at the time. The number of volunteers has dwindled while the amount of alarms continue to increase, he said. When he started in 1988, there were 180 members with a waiting list for those who wanted to be volunteers, and most members were firefighters with only a few members as EMTs. Today there are 59 interior firefighters, out of 109 active members, that can go inside a structure and put a fire out, whereas others can only assist outside.
“I love the volunteer fire service,” Yoos said. “We want to promote it more. We want more volunteers, but everybody is busy.”
He said the addition of paid firefighters was around $20 to $30 a year per household.
Williams said the district needs to put in some work to boost morale.
“Once they know that we’re not fast forwarding to becoming a fully paid department is one way,” he said, adding that more recruitment and retention efforts would help.
The election for one fire commissioner for a five-year term in the Setauket Fire District will take place Tuesday, Dec. 10, between 2 p.m. and 9 p.m. Residents can vote at the 394 Nicolls Road firehouse.