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

By Sara-Megan Walsh

St. James residents are planning a rally against the June 19 referendum on the sale of the Route 25A firehouse, feeling they have too many questions left unanswered.

Troy Rosasco, founder of the community organization Citizens for a Safer St. James, is working with others to encourage voters to say no to the sale of the landmark Route 25A firehouse proposed by the St. James Fire District. A group of concerned citizens is planning to gather at 10 a.m. June 16 on the grassy median at the intersection of Lake Avenue and Route 25A.

“I would like to see the main firehouse be owned and retained by the community and by the taxpayers,” Rosasco said. His Facebook following has grown to nearly 400 concerned residents. “We have more control over the future of that building if the entire community owns it, rather than selling it to a group of only 100 firefighters.”

We have more control over the future of that building if the entire community owns it, rather than selling it to a group of only 100 firefighters.”
 – Troy Rosasco

On June 19, the St. James Fire District — which consists of elected officials who are responsible for setting taxes to provide and maintain the buildings, fire and EMS service equipment the volunteers use — will ask community residents to approve a sale of the Route 25A firehouse for $500,000 back to St. James Fire Department, a nonprofit organization representing volunteers for fire and emergency response services.

Rosasco, a practicing attorney, said he feels it’s unfair to the taxpayers that the sale price is set at $500,000; the building is listed on the tax rolls as being valued at $1.5 million. He cites New York State Consolidated Town Law Section 176, Chapter 23, which governs the sale of excess equipment and property by fire districts, claiming the board of commissioners has a fiscal obligation to the residents to sell the building for as much as possible.

Fire Commissioner Ed Springer has said the sale is legal due to a clause in 2013 contract of sale for the firehouse, which switched ownership from the fire department to the district, was granted the state’s approval. The clause allegedly grants the volunteer firemen organization first rights to purchase the building back, if and when it went up for sale, at the same price paid.

“Even if this referendum passes, anyone in the district can go to court and challenge the sale of that firehouse because it was not sold in the taxpayers’ best interest,” Rosasco said.

The St. James resident won a New York State Supreme Court case against the district earlier this month. A state judge ordered the fire district to provide Rosasco with a copy of the 2013 contract of sale, emails between the fire commissioners before and after the failed September 2017 capital bond vote and other documents he requested back in December 2017 under the Freedom of Information Act.

St. James Fire Department has sponsored signs urging residents to “Vote Yes” June 19. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

“I wanted to see what their true positions are, their desires of what to do with the firehouse in the future,” Rosasco said June 12. “To date, I still don’t have those emails.”

The St. James resident, the fire district and their attorneys were schedule to appear in court June 13. The fire district did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding the court case and the outcome was not available by press time.

St. James Volunteer Fire Department is actively pushing for approval of the June 19 referendum both on its Facebook page and by posting lawn signs throughout the town.

“We want the property back,” Glen Itzkowitz, chairman of the board of the St. James Fire Department, said in January. “We think we can be the best stewards of that property as we’ve been the best stewards of that property since 1922.”

But St. James and Head of the Harbor residents, who contract their fire rescue services through the fire district, say the legality of the vote is not the only thing raising questions. The fire department publicly stated at a May 30 community forum the board is considering consolidating all fire rescue services out of the Jefferson Avenue substation in the future. The potential change has raised questions about the impact on response times as the Route 25A firehouse and Jefferson Avenue substation are on opposite sides of the Long Island Rail Road tracks that bisect the town.

“We think we can be the best stewards of that property as we’ve been the best stewards of that property since 1922.”
– Glen Itzkowitz

This spring, the fire commissioners hired a third-party consultant RFG Fire Rescue Consulting to conduct a study on response times of both fire houses to different parts of the hamlet. While an initial draft
report of the findings was in the board of fire commissioners’ hands by May 30, Springer
said the fire district would release the report only once it is reviewed by the district and consultant.

TBR News Media immediately verbally requested a copy of the draft report after the May 30 community meeting from Springer and was denied. A formal written FOIA request was submitted to the fire district last week by TBR News Media, asking for a copy of the study to be released, and the request was not fulfilled by press time.

“I think they are hiding something that will hurt their position on the June 19 referendum,” Rosasco said. “It’s absolutely outrageous that they are asking us to vote on the sale of the firehouse without having the safety study done and released to the public.”

Head of the Harbor Mayor Douglas Dahlgard first voiced his concerns about the safety of his residents if the Route 25A firehouse were to be sold and then shutdown, no longer serving as an active station, at a January community meeting. Since then, the village has officially requested the fire district provide it with a detailed proposal identifying where equipment will be located and anticipated response times to the village.

They haven’t figured it out or they are not providing the information to the residents of St. James.”
– Douglas Dahlgard

“We have not gotten the answers yet, but they say its pending,” Dahlgard said. “I assume we will be getting it shortly.”

The mayor said residents of Head of the Harbor are not eligible to vote in the June 19 referendum.

Both Rosasco and Dahlgard said the fire district has not been forthcoming in providing enough detailed information on its plans after the June 19 referendum.

“They haven’t figured it out or they are not providing the information to the residents of St. James,” the mayor said. “It’s rather strange in my view.”

St. James Fire District officials said publicly if the sale is approved, it will consider leasing space in the Route 25A firehouse from the department at a possible rate of $20,000 per year to hold events and meetings. If the sale is approved by the referendum, the volunteer fire department will still have to officially vote on whether to purchase the building.

The referendum will be held June 19 from 3 to 9 p.m. at the Jefferson Avenue substation on 221 Jefferson Ave.