St. James fire officials plan to move ahead with public referendum as planned

St. James Route 25A firehouse. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

Editor’s note: This post was updated 12:58 p.m. June 25 with a statement from Ron Graner of RFG Fire Rescue Consulting. 

By Sara-Megan Walsh

St. James Fire District’s Board of Fire Commissioners has been professionally advised not to move forward with the June 19 public referendum to sell the iconic Route 25A firehouse at this time.

The board of fire commissioners publicly released the 71-page “Final Report Review of Fire Rescue Stations and Service Capabilities” June 15. The study was conducted by third-party RFG Fire Rescue Consulting, dated May 28, 2018 just days before the scheduled June 19 vote. The two-part study was aimed at evaluating several concerns of the community including the sale of the Route 25A firehouse, a functional evaluation of both fire stations capacity and whether the district’s proposal to consolidate services would affect emergency response times.

The top recommendation of Ron Graner, a public safety consultant with RFG Fire Rescue Consulting who prepared the report, strongly advises the district against moving forward with the June 19 referendum to sell the building to the St. James Fire Department – a 501(c)(3) organization of the volunteers who act as firefighters and emergency rescue services.

“It is my professional opinion and strong specific recommendation that the fire commission should take no specific action to conduct a public referendum to sell this property at this time,” reads page 10 of the study.

Graner strongly recommended the fire district should assemble a strategic planning committee made up of community members, emergency responders, fire department and fire district members to weigh in on the future of the building and the fire district. In addition, the consultant suggested the Route 25A firehouse should be made a community landmark, no matter who owns it in the future, and should seek status as a National Historic structure.

The St. James Fire District Board of Fire Commissioners released a statement addressing why it had not released the initial study up until this point.

“While it is our goal to be transparent with the community, we have not released the initial draft until this point due to concerns over methodology used and validity of the information provided within,” reads a statement from the fire commissioners. “We have repeatedly asked to meet in person with the consultant to review our concerns and seek clarification on some of the recommendations; as of this date however, we have not been granted a meeting.”

Graner said fire district commissioners never contacted him with any questions or concerns about the study for several weeks after receiving the initial draft. While he confirmed the fire district did later request an in-person meeting, Graner said he provided a list of dates he was available and the estimated costs of travel to meet with the district in person, as he resides upstate in Fayetteville, before suggesting a conference call or remote meeting would be more cost-effective to immediately address any concerns. However, Graner alleged that a meeting date, time and method was never confirmed by the fire district.

As such, the fire district officials said the study and its findings will not be adopted until questions are answered and clarification is obtained from RFG Fire Rescue Consulting.  The June 19 referendum will move forward as scheduled for 3 to 9 p.m. at the Jefferson Avenue substation, located at 221 Jefferson Avenue, according to district spokeswoman Jessica Novins.

St. James Volunteer Fire Department issued a public statement via Facebook urging residents to vote yes to approve the sale of the firehouse while promising to protect its future.

“We will be closely engaging with our legal team in the coming weeks and months to develop a framework that would bind the property to the corporate constitution,” reads the fire department’s June 15 Facebook statement. “A change of this nature would look to legally ensure that as long as the department is in existence the main firehouse will be permanently paired with the department.”

Click here to download and read the full 71-page report by RFG Fire Rescue Consulting.  Keep an eye on TBR News Media for more to come on this breaking news.