Over the last few years, controversy erupted in the St. James Fire District when the board of commissioners floated a $12.5 million plan to build a new firehouse at the Jefferson Avenue substation site and potentially sell the historic St. James firehouse on Route 25A, which was built in the 1920s. The community at large ultimately rejected both ideas, but the issue has led to change.
Thomas Donohue and Joseph Kuethen were both elected commissioners, running largely on the bond issue controversy, and this year Kit Gabrielsen is challenging existing fire district leadership for the single open seat on the all-volunteer St. James board of commissioners. Both Donohue and Kuethen support Gabrielsen, mainly because of his public support for maintaining operations at the Route 25A fire house, according to Donohue.
“I’m in favor of low taxes, better service and two firehouses,” Gabrielsen said in a telephone interview. “I’m not happy with the fact that rolls are down that there’s lawsuits and other allegations.”
A Suffolk County police officer for 33 years, Gabrielsen said he wants to keep the historic firehouse as a firehouse, so there are emergency services in that part of town. A lifetime resident of St. James, he said that current management raised taxes 19 percent. He said that the fire district needs to keep below the 2 percent tax cap.
“We’re spending money on these lawsuits,” Gabrielsen said.
Complaints, Gabrielsen said, can be fixed though management. Chiefs and commissioners, he said, are in charge of these things.
According to a case reviewed online, volunteer firefighter John Tyson filed a suit Dec. 5, 2018, against the department, its chiefs and commissioners, alleging retaliation after publicly opposing a bond, which the chiefs and commissioners supported. It also alleged retaliation against publicly opposing the closure and sale of the historic firehouse and expressing views contrary to the majority of the governing body.
Gabrielsen has been active in the St. James fire district for 40 years.
Ryan Davis currently serves as fire chief, the department’s highest ranking position. Davis also said he believes that the district needs to recruit more volunteers. He added that fire department membership is down from 125 people to 100. He wants to create a citizens advisory board comprised of elected officials and community members so the district has more local involvement.
He’s running for the commissioner position to oversee taxes and allocate funding.
“I want to balance the budget,” Davis said in a Nov. 19 interview.
Davis said he was in favor of the bond issue for a new Jefferson fire station. Ninety percent of the district’s operations are currently based at the Jefferson Avenue station, he added. But Davis said he wants the public to know that he also supports keeping the historic St. James firehouse. The building’s interior, he said, needs work, but he believes the exterior should stay the same.
Davis has worked as a FDNY fireman at Engine 88 in the Bronx for the last 13 years. He’s been active in the St. James fire district for 20 years.
Incumbent William Kearney is also running for reelection, handing in his petition midday on Nov. 20 to beat the 5 p.m. deadline.
Kearney was elected to a four-year term in 2015.
“After 48 years as a resident of St. James and 39 years as a member of the St. James Fire Department, it is with a continued sense of pride in our community that I am asking for your support and your vote in the upcoming election for Fire Commissioner,” Kearney states. “As current chairman of the board of fire commissioners and having served as the fire department treasurer for 14 years, I have an in-depth knowledge of financial controls and fiscal management.”
Kearney also said that he will use his public service experience as well as his extensive project management background to represent the fiscal and operational concerns of for fire services in the St. James community. A Navy veteran, his background also includes serving the American Legion Post 1152, the St. James Methodist Church and for 19 years has been the chaplain for the department.
Residents can vote Tuesday, Dec. 10, between 3 and 9 p.m. at St. James fire station at 221 Jefferson Ave. in St. James and at Fairfield Condo, 1 Fairfield Drive in St. James.