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Route 25A firehouse

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

St. James residents have spoken: The iconic Route 25A firehouse will remain firmly in the hands of the taxpayers.

The taxpayers of the St. James Fire District voted down the June 19 public referendum which would have sold the fire station to St. James Fire Department for $500,000 by 792-498 votes.

“The St. James Fire District Board of Commissioners thanks all residents who voted in today’s referendum,” said Commissioner Ed Springer, Sr. in a statement Tuesday night. “The board will reconvene and discuss its next steps for the future of the Route 25A firehouse and use of its space.”

St. James resident Troy Rosasco, founder of Citizens for a Safer St. James, led roughly a dozen residents in a rally against the sale of the historic fire station June 16. Citizens alongside local firefighters took up positions on the triangular grassy median at the intersection of Lake Avenue and Route 25A bearing signs that read, “We must protect this house, vote no,” and other slogans.

June 19 referendum results
792 “no” votes
498 “yes” votes
1,290 total ballots cast

“The people of St. James have once again overwhelmingly said they want to maintain control of the main firehouse,” Rosasco said, whose home is in the Village of Head of the Harbor. “We all own the main firehouse and want to continue to see it as a working firehouse for the foreseeable future so that both St. James and Head of the Harbor are adequately protected.”

Suffolk County police said that they received several 911 calls at approximately 10:20 a.m. Saturday reporting the picketers were impeding vehicular traffic. A patrol unit was dispatched to the scene where officers said they did not observe any protestors impacting traffic and advised the group they could continue as long as they did not disturb traffic flow.

Many rally attendees said they were distrustful of what fate might befall the Route 25A firehouse if entrusted to the hands of the St. James Volunteer Fire Department — a nonprofit organization representing approximately 100 volunteers for fire and emergency response services.

“It’s an organization of private individuals,” Augie Cocuzza, a resident of Fairfield at St. James apartment complex said. “They could do whatever they want with it.”

Head of the Harbor resident Troy Rosasco led a “vote no” rally in front of the Route 25A firehouse June 16. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

St. James firefighters launched a public campaign encouraging citizens to vote “yes” June 19 to put the firehouse back into the hands of its volunteer members.

“It is imperative,” said Kevin Barattini, a fire department spokesman.

In a public Facebook statement made June 15, the group had promised to protect the building if the sale went through, by amending its organizational constitution.

“People need to realize this firehouse isn’t going anywhere, it will always remain a firehouse,” Barattini said.”

The spokesman said the department was concerned about misinformation and “blatant lies” circulating prior to the vote. He said firemen reported hearing that the sale would allegedly lead to an increase in taxes or that the building would later be sold for profit to CVS or another business — an option he said hasn’t been entertained in years.

“Prior to selling it to the fire district in 2013, the fire department heard pitches from other entities including CVS but those talks were stopped after 2011,” Barattini said. “That’s seven years ago, people in the
community have to let that go.”

The St. James Fire Department did not respond to requests for comment immediately following the June 19 referendum.

The district had purchased the building from the volunteer fire department in 2013 with the original intentions of operating it as a fire station in addition to the Jefferson Avenue substation and make necessary
repairs. Since then, two proposed capital bond referendums have failed — the first in 2013 and the second request for $12.25 million in September 2017.

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

The outcome of the June 19 referendum closely resembles the polling totals of the September 2017 capital bond vote. There was a slight increase in ballots cast, up from 1,234 votes to 1,290 votes, but the split of residents’ opinions remains relatively unchanged — a small increase from 775 to 792 against, and from 459 votes to 498 votes for.

St. James resident John Rowan, who resides on Jefferson Avenue, said it was clear to him what the point of friction is.

“My biggest thing is they don’t bring the community to the table to discuss this,” he said. “Even though they say they have, they never have.”

Rowan attended the May 30 public forum held at Smithtown High School East about the June 19 referendum, where he said fire commissioners restricted public questions and comments to two minutes per person, stifling the community’s discussion of the issues. He recommended that in the future, St. James fire commissioners host a town-hall-style meeting to listen to what residents have to say on the future of the Route 25A firehouse.

“That’s all they needed to do,” Rowan said. “It could easily be a win-win situation for everyone.”

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.


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Fire commissioners have preliminary results of study on rescue response times; may not release outcome before the vote

The St. James firehouse on Route 25A/Lake Avenue. Photo from Google Maps

By Kyle Barr

Some St. James residents are feeling burned over the St. James Fire District’s plans to sell the Route 25A firehouse as the hamlet heads toward a referendum vote June 19.

More than 70 people attended a May 30 community forum where the St. James Fire District presented its plans to sell the iconic two-story, white firehouse back to the St. James Fire Department, as well as its
future plans for the building.

On June 19, Commissioner Ed Springer said 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, an organization representing volunteers for fire and emergency response services.

The fire district purchased the building in 2013 with original intentions of operating it as a second firehouse to the Jefferson Avenue facility and pass a bond for upcoming repair work. Two bond votes have since failed, one in 2013 and a second request for $12 million in September 2017.

We’re going to have to do [a] tremendous amount of work on both firehouses.”

– Ed Springer

“The department wants the building back, and we need to do work on both buildings” Springer said. “We could rent the space to them for $20,000 a year, which we think is pretty reasonable.”

If the vote passes, St. James residents raised questions over what fate holds for the iconic firehouse and how it may impact their local fire rescue services.

Springer said the district will consider leasing space in the building at a rate of $20,000 a year to store equipment and host community events, but final cost and specific details have not been finalized.

Glen Itzkowitz, board chairman of St. James Fire Department, said the department would then use the money from that lease to complete much-needed renovations on both the Route 25A firehouse and the Jefferson Avenue headquarters. The organization’s members would offer their time and skills during construction to help reduce labor costs of the project.

“We’re going to have to do [a] tremendous amount of work on both firehouses,” Springer said. “Back when we wanted the last bond to pass it would cost $250 per square foot, now you’re talking about $450 per square foot.”

But it remains unclear whether or not the Route 25A firehouse would continue to serve as a base of fire rescue operations.

We are so fortunate to have a fire station on both sides of the train tracks.”

– Peter Macari

St. James resident Peter Macari, a 24-year member of the fire department, said many in the community fear response times would increase if the Route 25A firehouse is no longer used as a working fire station.

“We are so fortunate to have a fire station on both sides of the train tracks,” Macari said. “If that building can get a fireman to that person’s house in the time it takes to save them, then that building did its job.”

The district currently operates one fire truck out of the Route 25A fire station, but Springer said the district does have plans to perform a trial run of operating all fire department services out of the Jefferson
Avenue headquarters — once it can make much-needed renovations.

“Is there sometime in the future where we might look to do a trial period to bring all apparatus down to the one firehouse, yes, but we still plan to lease that firehouse for a number of years,” the fire commissioner said. “Understand that its difficult during the day to have two crews out in two different places.”

This spring, the commissioners of St. James Fire District 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. The study includes public feedback on performance collected through an online survey. While an initial draft report of the findings is complete, fire district officials said that they will release the report only once it is reviewed by the district and consultant, but gave no specific date on when that might be or whether it will be released before the June 19 referendum vote.

“It seems silly to sell it when they don’t have a complete plan.”

– John Rowan

Itzkowitz said almost all operations for the department already occur at the Jefferson Avenue firehouse, and that current response times are sufficient to anywhere in the 4.5-square-mile area.

John Rowan, of St. James, asked why the department wouldn’t hold off the vote until they could confirm exactly what they wanted to do with the property down the line.

“It seems like [the fire district] doesn’t have those exact numbers on how much renovations or how much a new building will cost,” Rowan said. “I don’t think they know what they want to build in the future. It seems silly to sell it when they don’t have a complete plan.”

Springer said that three of the five commissioners, including himself, have promised long-term commitments to lease the 25A firehouse into the foreseeable future. But Springer’s term as commissioner is up this coming January, and he said he does not plan to seek reappointment.

If the referendum is approved June 19, the fire commissioner said the sale or lease of the Route 25A firehouse would not have any impact on residents’ taxes. Should it fail, Springer said the necessary renovations would require raising the tax levy.

The referendum to sell the 25A firehouse will take place on June 19 from 3 to 9 p.m. at the Jefferson Avenue firehouse on 221 Jefferson Ave.

The St. James firehouse on Route 25A/Lake Avenue. Photo from Google Maps

A vote that may determine the future fate of a St. James firehouse has been set for June 19.

The board of commissioners of the St. James Fire District voted to move forward with holding a June 19 public referendum on the sale of the Route 25A firehouse to the St. James Fire Department, a nonprofit organization that is made up of the volunteer firefighters and EMS workers.

The white, two-story firehouse at the intersection of Lake Avenue and Route 25A was purchased nearly five years ago by the St. James Fire District — which consists of elected officials who are responsible for setting taxes to provide and maintain the buildings and fire and EMS service equipment the volunteers use. The district’s hope was that purchase of the building would help reduce its annual expenses, as it was paying rent for space to the St. James Fire Department.

“Given the current state of the building and the fire district’s needs, maintaining ownership of this property is no longer a fiscally prudent option,” Commissioner Ed Springer said.

The Route 25A firehouse, built in 1922, has not been significantly renovated or updated in more than 50 years. The fire district said the antiquated building cannot house a majority of its current fire engines due to height restrictions of the garage bay, so only one truck operates out of the location.

Given the current state of the building and the fire district’s needs, maintaining ownership of this property is no longer a fiscally prudent option.”
– Ed Springer

Under the original contract of sale, there was a clause that stipulated the St. James Fire Department would be given the first chance to repurchase the building should the district put it up for sale. This contract has been upheld by the New York State Supreme Court and the state attorney general’s office.

“Selling it back to the department would carry a number of benefits: the department, as they are under different laws and regulations than the fire district, would be able to expedite repairs and improvements to the facility, through the use of its budget,” Springer said.

If the building’s sale is approved June 19, there will be no tax rate impact on fire district residents.

The proposed sale has led to widespread concern through the St. James community about the future of the firehouse and whether it would still be an active station. Earlier this year, Head of the Harbor Mayor Douglas Dahlgard voiced concerns about the district’s proposed plans to consolidate all operations out of its Jefferson Avenue headquarters. Dahlgard said he feared it would significantly increase response times for his residents, placing them at increased risk, as that station is farther away.

Bill Kearney, vice chairmen of the St. James Fire District board, said the goal of possible consolidation would be to improve emergency response times by bringing key personnel together at one location.

To better assess the community’s needs and concerns, the fire district launched an online survey asking residents, taxpayers and business operations in St. James and Head of the Harbor to anonymously provide feedback on their fire rescue services by April 30. A preliminary draft of the survey’s responses has been given to the fire commissioners, according to spokeswoman Jessica Novins, but had not been released to the public as of May 22. The fire commissioners have not had time to review the preliminary draft yet, according to Novins.

A community forum for residents within the fire district will be held Wednesday, May 30, at 7 p.m. where information will be presented about the sale, future plans for the Route 25A building will be addressed and to answer any questions regarding the referendum. The location of the May 30 meeting is to be determined by May 24 and then posted on the fire district’s website at www.stjamesfd.org.