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St. James Fire Department

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.

 

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.

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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.

June 19 date set for public referendum to sell Lake Avenue firehouse to fire department

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

By Sara-Megan Walsh

St. James residents have the opportunity to give their two cents on the effectiveness of their local fire rescue services.

The commissioners of St. James Fire District have launched an online survey asking for residents, taxpayers and business operators in St. James and Head of the Harbor to anonymously provide their opinions on the fire rescue services’ strengths, weaknesses and what needs improvement. All responses are due by April 30.

Edward Springer Sr., chairman of the board, said the survey is part of an independent study being conducted by RFG Fire Rescue Consulting on the St. James Fire District. The study will take a statistical look at the fire district’s response to emergency calls, starting from when a call comes in, who responds, how long it takes units to arrive at the scene and the effectiveness of the response. Firefighters, emergency responders and staff for the fire district have been given a separate survey to complete to offer their insight.

“There were questions raised by the Village of the Head of the Harbor, who we contract with, and some community associations that has brought us to getting more details,” Springer said. “That way we can continue going forward with facts, rather than going forward with mistruths that have been posted on Facebook.”

It costs us a lot of money to have that building, is that building necessary for us to have a proper response?”
— Bill Kearney

At a Jan. 22 civic meeting, Head of the Harbor Mayor Douglas Dahlgard voiced concerns about the fire district’s proposed consolidation plan to operate all trucks out of its Jefferson Avenue headquarters, saying it would significantly increase response times for his residents, possibly placing them at increased risk. The village has a three-year contract for fire and ambulance services with St. James Fire District that expires Dec. 31.

Bill Kearney, vice chairman of the board, said the St. James fire commissioners are looking at consolidation in hopes of improving emergency response times. Kearney said delays are often caused by a lack of available personnel, who are sometimes split between the two firehouses, and the commissioners believe consolidation could fix the issue.

The St. James Fire Department — the 501(c)(3) organization that represents volunteers in the fire and EMS services — currently has approximately 100 members, according to Springer. This is down from a record high of 125 members, and yet they are answering more calls for help than ever. In 2017, the St. James Fire District — made up of elected officials who are responsible for raising taxes to provide and maintain the buildings, fire and EMS service equipment that volunteers use — answered 1,423 emergency calls.

Kearney said the board hopes the study the consulting firm produces can provide insight on the operational value of the Route 25A firehouse. The district anticipates a preliminary draft of the study will be available for review mid-May.

“It costs us a lot of money to have that building, is that building necessary for us to have a proper response?” he asked.

The vice chairman estimated it costs the fire district approximately $80,000 a year for the Route 25A firehouse to cover utilities, maintenance and other basic costs.

It’s not a historic building, but there’s a history to all of us here in town, especially the firefighters.”
—Marty Thompson

The future of the white, two-story firehouse at the intersection of Lake Avenue and Route 25A, built in 1922, has been an ongoing issue of concern. The commissioners first announced their plans to sell off the building in August 2017. The St. James Fire Department was guaranteed first opportunity to purchase it back, based on its initial contract of sale with the fire district.

“It’s not a historic building, but there’s a history to all of us here in town, especially the firefighters,” said Marty Thompson, president of the St. James Fire Department. “I would never want to see that building get knocked down. I honestly feel the best hope for that building is that the firefighters get it back.”

A tentative date of June 19 is set for the public referendum in which St. James taxpayers will be asked to approve the sale of the Route 25A firehouse from the fire district back to the fire department.

The department’s volunteer firefighters have already voted in favor of purchasing the building, according to Thompson, to maintain it as a landmark and for the community’s use. He assured the nonprofit organization can provide proper funding to provide for its upkeep.

If the referendum vote fails, he said the fire district could potentially close and shutter the firehouse entirely, give it to the county or state as excess property for their use, or sell it to the highest bidder.

“There are other interests out there who I am sure would like to rent or buy the building, maybe keep it the way it is,” Thompson said. “But I’ve seen that building there for so long. I don’t want to see anything else there.”

The online community survey can be found at www.surveymonkey.com/r/CommunitySurveySJFD9JLKR6N. All responses are confidential, according to the fire district.

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

A second lawsuit has been filed against the St. James Fire Dept. and its leadership as a third volunteer has stepped forward alleging unfair treatment over social media.

St. James resident John Tyson filed a federal lawsuit against St. James Fire Department and St. James Fire District Jan. 31 seeking $700,000 in damages for being first suspended, then dismissed as a volunteer allegedly over a series of Facebook posts. He claims the firehouse’s actions violated his First Amendment right to free speech and due process rights under New York State law.

“These acts were taken purely in retaliation for [Tyson] exercising his rights to free speech by expressing views which were contrary to the views of the majority of the Fire Department’s governing body,” the lawsuit reads.

“These acts were taken purely in retaliation for [Tyson] exercising his rights to free speech by expressing views which were contrary to the views of the majority of the Fire Department’s governing body.”

— John Tyson lawsuit

Tyson was a longtime volunteer of the fire department and admitted he was an administrator of the St. James Fire Department Engine Company #1 Facebook group, along with siblings Richard and Tricia Weisse. After the Sept. 19, 2017, bond vote failed 775-459, Tricia Weisse posted a photograph of the historic Lake Avenue firehouse to the Facebook group. An unidentified person posted as a comment, “It is tough, unless you are looking for a new place to party, to see these pics and remain absolutely unemotional about tearing it down. Nice pics,” according to the court documents.

The St. James volunteer alleges in the lawsuit he received a phone call Sept. 29 from Second Assistant Chief David Mills saying that until one of the three administrators of the Facebook group admitted to posting the offensive comment, he was suspended from attending all social activities. He received a letter dated Sept. 28 signed by Chief Edward Springer confirming his suspension through Dec. 31 for allegedly violating the district’s social media policy.

“The letter did not accuse [Tyson] of posting the comment, but rather, held him responsible for the post because he was one of the three administrators of the Facebook group,” the lawsuit reads. “However, the post did not violate the social media policy, and the claimant had not violated the social media policy merely by being an administrator of the Facebook group on which the post was made.”

On Dec. 12, Tyson posted a comment on the Facebook group Citizens for a Safer St. James in response to a video made by Joe Kuethen who was running for fire commissioner. In Tyson’s comments, he wrote, “Unification of the firefighters? Difficult. That responsibility rests with the chiefs who are centered on exploiting differences and punishing those of opposing opinion.”

Tyson said he received a phone call from fire district officers Jan. 2 advising him that he was suspended from the fire department due to his post and “cannot go to the firehouse at all.” The decision, Tyson alleges, was made without any notice of the charges against him and he wasn’t provided with a hearing as required for volunteers under New York general municipal law.

Jessica Novins, a spokeswoman for the fire district, said the fire commissioners “cannot comment on matters of litigation.”

On Jan. 3, St. James Fire Department held its monthly meeting — which Tyson understood he was prohibited from attending — where its approximately 100 members voted to terminate him as a volunteer. Tyson said he was embarrassed and humiliated to learn of this, having only heard about the vote afterwards.

Kevin Barattini, a spokesman for St. James Fire Department, said the organization has no comment at this time.

This is the second lawsuit filed against St. James Fire Department and the fire district in the last three months. The Weisses, third-generation volunteers with Engine Company #1, filed a lawsuit Dec. 19 in federal court alleging the fire department, fire district and its officers illegally prevented them from attending any social events due to the Facebook post made after the bond vote in September. The pair is also seeking money for their “emotional distress, mental anguish, embarrassment and humiliation.”

St. James Fire Department members to vote on whether to buy back Route 25A firehouse

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

As ownership of a historic St. James landmark prepares to change hands again, residents are watching anxiously to know what its future holds.

The St. James Fire Department has been approached by the St. James Fire District about purchasing back the Route 25A firehouse. The firefighters will have to vote to approve the purchase, but the St. James community expressed concerns about the building’s future use at a Jan. 22 civic association meeting.

“I have dedicated myself to do many things to bring this community’s historic life alive again,” said Natalie Weinstein, owner of Uniquely Natalie Quality Consignment on Lake Avenue. “To lose this historic property for what it is would be a travesty.”

Glen Itzkowitz, chairman of the board of the St. James Fire Department, the 501(c)(3) organization consisting of those volunteers in the St. James fire and EMS services, said a date has not been set for the referendum on whether the fire department will purchase the building. When the department sold the firehouse to the district for $500,000 in 2013, there was a clause put into the sale agreement that the department was  to be given a first right to the property if it was ever put on the market.

“We want the property back,” Itkowitz said. “We think we can be the best stewards of that property as we’ve been the best stewards of that property since 1922.”

To lose this historic property for what it is would be a travesty.”
-Natalie Weinstein

In that year, a Nissequogue resident donated the land to the fire department to help house fire engines and equipment, which now fall under the oversight of the fire district. The fire department and district are two separate entities that work together.

While the Route 25A property is part of St. James Historic Corridor by New York State, according to fire department member Anthony Amato, this does not protect the building. It would require a local law against its demolition made by the Town of Smithtown.

Given the firehouse’s history, Itzkowitz said he personally would like to see it continue operating as a base for fire services. He admitted the 100-member strong volunteer department had not reached a determination on what to do with the property if it agreed to purchase it back.

Itzkowitz denied public rumors that the historic firehouse would be torn down or destroyed.

“It bothers me and so many members of the department that that is the sentiment that’s out there,” he said.

The St. James Fire District, consisting of publicly elected officials who are responsible for oversight of the St. James firehouses, fire and EMS service equipment, has made clear it does not plan to continue operating out of the Route 25A firehouse. Bill Kearney, a commissioner for the fire district, said it would have been closed Oct. 26, 2017, if not for pressure from Head of the Harbor Mayor Douglas Dahlgard. The village has a three-year contract for fire and ambulance services from St. James through Dec. 31 of this year.

The idea of consolidation is … to get the first piece of equipment out on the road as quickly as possible to get them to your house”
-St. James  Fire District Commissioner Bill Kearney

“I am not happy having response times lengthen by moving all operations down to  Woodlawn Avenue on the other side of the Long Island Rail Road tracks,” Dahlgard said. “It makes no sense to me.”

Kearney said Dahlgard and residents’ fears of increased response time if the Route 25A firehouse closes are unfounded. Volunteers responded to more than 1,400 alarms last year; according Kearney, only 96 were for incidents north of the railroad tracks. He said out of those 96 calls, crews from the historic Route 25A firehouse responded to only 38 due to a lack of personnel. Kearney said it’s a challenge at best, and hazardous for volunteers trying to navigate traffic to reach the historic firehouse to respond to a call, at worst. He claimed consolidating to one center, on Jefferson Avenue, will actually speed up response times.

“The idea of consolidation is … to get the first piece of equipment out on the road as quickly as possible to get them to your house,” the fire district commissioner said.

St. James residents saw their taxes for fire services increase for 2018, and Kearney said the failed bond votes have left the district with a Jefferson Avenue building in need of major repairs and upgrades to suit its needs.

But he highlighted that Head of the Harbor residents don’t pay the same taxes as St. James residents for emergency services, and actually pay less due to the negotiated contract. Kearney said he is hoping the district will be able to negotiate a “fair contract” with Dahlgard moving forward.

The Community Association of St. James said it had no position on the issue, but encouraged the fire district and departments to host a public forum on the issue.

Lawsuit alleges FaceBook post made after September 2017 vote led to unfair suspension, harassment

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

Two volunteers are suing the St. James firehouse and its leadership for violating their constitutional rights in the aftermath of the September bond vote.

Siblings Richard Weisse and Tricia Weisse, third-generation volunteers with St. James Engine Company #1, allege the St. James Fire Department, St. James Fire District, Chief Edward Springer Jr. and First Assistant Chief Ryan Davis illegally prevented them from attending any social events due to a Facebook post made after the bond vote in September. The pair is seeking money for their “emotional distress, mental anguish, embarrassment and humiliation.”

“We believe that the plaintiffs here were wronged, it’s a clear violation of their First Amendment and Fourth Amendment due process rights,” said David Erhlich, a Garden City-based attorney representing the Weisses. “We believe a jury will be sympathetic and side with our clients.”

The [firefighters] actions against [Richard and Tricia Weisse] amount to sore losers who are taking revenge on the ‘winners”
— Lawsuit

The Weisse family has a long history with the fire department, with their father, the late Richard Weisse Sr. having been a 42-year member and prior captain who was given the title of honorary chief upon his death, Erhlich said.

Tricia Weisse posted a picture of the historic St. James firehouse, located on Route 25A/Lake Avenue, on Facebook Sept. 24, after a $12.25 million capital bond vote failed Sept. 19, according to the lawsuit. Erlich said both siblings were vocal advocates against the bond.

Another person, who was not identified in the lawsuit, wrote a comment under the Facebook post reading, “St. James Fire Dept. Engine Company #1. It is tough, unless you are looking for a new place to party, to see these pics and remain absolutely unemotional about tearing it down. Nice pics,” according to the court documents.

Based on this comment, Richard Weisse and Tricia Weisse claim they received a letter signed by Springer that suspended them and another volunteer, John Tyson, from attending all social events and functions for three months as the comment violated the district’s social media policy. The Weisses said they requested a hearing to have their suspension reviewed, but the district refused.

“The [firefighters] actions against [Richard and Tricia Weisse] amount to sore losers who are taking revenge on the ‘winners,’” reads the lawsuit. “Springer and Davis used and abused their power in the department to punish the plaintiffs for their political decision on the bond issue.”

During this three-month suspension, the fire department hosted several events including its Veterans Day parade, Christmas parade, and Breakfast with Santa where the siblings had traditionally dressed up as Santa and Mrs. Claus. Instead, the siblings were forced to sit out.

We made an attempt to reach out to the fire department and fire district via letter and via phone, to resolve the matter”
— David Erhlich

Richard Weisse also alleged in November 2017 that Davis directed that he and other members of Engine Company No. 1 not be transported to a mandatory training, for which he took time off work to attend, and was not able to make it up within the required time frame. As such, Richard Weisse was suspended as a volunteer, according to court documents, and harassed by other firefighters.

“Springer, Davis and the department encouraged and condoned the harassment of Richard,” reads the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that the Weisse siblings’ “expression and advocacy against the bond issue — including the comment which was wrongly attributed to [them] — are an expression on the issue of public importance and is protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution from government interference or restriction.”

The siblings’ attorney also makes case for a violation of the Weisses’ Fourth Amendment due process right, claiming New York General Municipal Law Section 209-1 requires firefighters receive procedural due process before being discharged or suspended.

“We made an attempt to reach out to the fire department and fire district via letter and via phone, to resolve the matter,” Erlich said. “All we received back was a letter saying they we are supporting the fire district.”

Jessica Novins, a spokeswoman for St. James fire department and district, commented only, “Should there ever be any litigation against the fire district, the district would not be at liberty to comment.”

A rendering of what the front of the proposed new St. James firehouse would look like. Image from St. James Fire District

By Sara-Megan Walsh

Firefighters are known for running into danger, but it can be difficult to get to the scene when firefighters are facing significant risk simply getting to their trucks.

St. James fire commissioners are asking residents to consider a $12.25 million capital bond project to build a new 22,458-square-foot Jefferson Avenue facility Sept. 19.

“We are not looking to build a luxurious firehouse, as other communities have,” St. James Fire District Chairman Lawrence Montrose wrote in a letter with other commissioners. “We are simply looking to provide our dedicated volunteers with the basic and modern resources they need to effectively do their job — a job that protects and serves the residents of this community in their greatest times of need.”

The proposal being voted on in the St. James Fire District includes tearing down the Jefferson Avenue firehouse and replacing the structure with one nearly three times as large. Photo from Google Maps

The fire district’s existing Jefferson Avenue facility sustained significant damage in an August 2016 storm. The building’s pre-existing infrastructure issues allowed 6 to 18 inches of water to rise up through the floors, flooding the building, according to the St. James Fire District commissioners through a spokesperson. The flood caused cracks to the weight-bearing walls in the truck bay and worsened stress cracks in the fire chief and commissioner’s offices, in addition to plumbing and electrical damage.

Since the flood, Jefferson Avenue volunteer firefighters have been getting into their gear in one building before running across the parking lot to get on a truck. While this is happening, the fire commissioners said other volunteers are often still entering the parking lot, creating a major safety concern. Volunteers are in danger of being hit by incoming vehicles as they cross to the trucks.

“One instance was almost a catastrophic event,” said the fire commissioners. “One individual fell in the parking lot and was almost run over by an exiting fire truck.”

Other safety issues have arisen. Two of the district’s fire companies are operating out of what was originally the storage and maintenance structure built on the rear of the property. Trucks responding to one of the district’s 1,298 calls in 2016 also had to maneuver through the traffic. Fire commissioner chiefs compared the situation to playing the video game Frogger.

The proposed Jefferson Avenue facility, if approved by voters, would be more than three times the size of the existing 7,407-square-foot building. The additional space would include spaces to serve as accommodations for firefighters and community members during storms or major emergencies, in addition to a meeting room for district and public use. It would be built in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, as the current firehouse is not.

St. James fire commissioners will be moving forward with selling the historic firehouse on Route 25A/Lake Avenue. Photo from Google Maps

If voters approve the project, construction of the new Jefferson Avenue facility would start around six months after the vote and would be completed within one year. Volunteer response to emergencies would not be interrupted by the construction, according to the district.

Regardless of voters’ decision, St. James fire commissioners said they will move forward with selling off the Route 25A/Lake Avenue building, purchased by the district for $500,000 in 2013. Due to the facility’s age, it’s not suited for the district’s needs.

The estimated cost of the proposed plan to consolidate to one Jefferson Avenue facility would be an increase of approximately $118 to $198 a year for taxpayers based on their home’s assessed value.

St. James Fire District will be holding a public information session for those who wish to learn more Aug. 29 at the Jefferson Avenue firehouse at 7 p.m. Residents can also tour existing facilities Sept. 9 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sept. 14 from 7 to 9 p.m. and Sept. 17 from 1 to 3 p.m.