“Snag” hit in Fire Governance change

Spending Referendum now needed; Commissioners to be named sooner

by Robert Lynch; June 19, 2023

As he prefaced his vote just before he joined a unanimous Enfield Town Board June 14th to support establishment of a “Fire District” that would move control of Enfield fire protection services to an independent Board of Fire Commissioners, this writer, Councilperson Robert Lynch remarked, “I’ll say one thing.  I am trusting [attorney Brad] Pinsky’s conclusion that this will not be subject to the Statutory Spending Limit.  I hope that we don’t get into a problem that way.”

Sooner to a Commission. Sooner to an election. And a spending referendum, too.

Well, as it turns out, this Councilperson’s skepticism proved well-founded:  Yes, the Fire District’s budget will become subject to the Statutory Spending Limit.  Yes, there will need to be a special referendum in late-summer for the new Fire District to exceed that limit.  Yes, the Town Board will need to move up the date for the Fire District’s establishment and the appointment of its first Commissioners.  And, Yes, those new Commissioners would now need to stand for election as soon as this December.

And as to whether Enfield, its Fire Company, and the new Commission may “get into a problem,” only time will tell.

“Hit a snag,” Town Supervisor Stephanie Redmond bluntly informed her Town Board Monday morning (June 19).  Redmond relayed an email sent to her minutes earlier from Brad Pinsky, the Syracuse attorney who’s helped guide the Town toward transition from a “Fire Protection District” to a “Fire District,” shifting oversight from the Town Board to a new Board of Fire Commissioners.  The Town Board’s vote the prior Wednesday had authorized the change, but made it effective on October 2nd, a delay primarily to avoid any snap election of appointed Fire Commissioners.  It would have put off balloting to December of next year.

But attorney Pinsky’s subsequent meetings with Enfield Volunteer Fire Company (EVFC) leadership now leads him to conclude that existing EVFC debt—a prime contributor to the Fire Company’s current fiscal burden—is held at interest rates so low that refinancing from bank loans to bonds would be ill-advised.  Yet without bond financing, state law will trigger the late-summer spending limit referendum.

“As a result,” with current financing kept in place, “the District will have to lease the vehicles from the fire company,” Brad Pinsky wrote the Town Board.  “Although bonds are exempt from the statutory spending limit, leases are not exempt.”

And the attorney, repeating what he had shared with the Town Board at the June 14th Public Hearing, said that absent a referendum, New York allows a Fire District to budget no more than $1,000 for each $1,000,000 in assessed valuation.  With Enfield’s total assessments pegged at around $213 Million, the Fire District’s spending, without an override referendum, would be capped at about $213,000 annually.

But the Fire Company’s current year budget puts spending at more than $377,000.  See the problem?

“Since your total taxable assessed valuation is very low, we have come to the opinion that we need to increase the statutory spending limitation,” Pinsky wrote the Supervisor.  “This does NOT result in an increased tax rate, but merely allows the district to tax at the same or at an appropriate rate,” he stressed.

But the requirement for a referendum will force everything else toward the transition of fire protection services to accelerate as well.  State law requires the referendum be held no later than September 20th, Pinsky now states. But under the Town Board’s current Resolution, the Fire Commission would not be in place by then.

Intuitively, a Spending Limit override vote can’t be held until the Fire District becomes a legal entity.  As a result of this legislatively-shackled chain of required events, an October 2nd start-up date for a Fire Commission no longer works.  The transition must come sooner.

“Since the statutory spending limitation must be increased by the voters no later than September 20, and because we need about 35 days to notice the election, we should form the fire district effective August 1 and appoint commissioners no later than August 1,” Pinsky wrote Redmond.  “That would give us a short amount of time to hold the vote, but we could do it,” the attorney observed.

Of course, the newly-found need for a Spending Limit referendum entails risk, much risk.  As this writer acknowledged before he cast his vote last Wednesday, Enfield harbors a strong undercurrent of public opposition to Fire Company spending.  Under the current Town Board-managed arrangement, spending referenda have never been required.  But under Commission governance, they will be.  There are many people in this Town ready, willing—and perhaps, eager—to send the EVFC a message they’d rather not hear.

“I’m going to say this for the record; this scares me,” this Councilperson, Robert Lynch, told the Town Board’s Public Hearing.  “What happens if we rush into forming a Fire District?  We have to have the late-August referendum to exceed the Statutory Spending Limit… and (what if) it’s defeated?  Then where do we stand?”

Enfield could “get into a bind where we’re starving the Fire Company because of a New York State statute,” I cautioned the Board at the hearing .

“We’re not, though,” Supervisor Redmond responded assuredly that night to my worried scenario, the Supervisor voicing confidence at that time that the EVFC’s substantial debt service—pegged that night at $250,000—would exempt its budget from a referendum.  Monday’s word from counsel has proven otherwise.

According to the expected revised timetable, were the initially Town-appointed Fire Commissioners to take office in August, they’d each need to face the voters in an oddly-scheduled election December 12th.  Newly-elected Commissioners would then take over in January.  The Town Board has already invited prospective members of the new Board of Fire Commissioners to submit applications by the Town Board’s July 12th meeting.

Pinsky’s Monday advisory will require the Town Board to amend its official date for the Commission’s establishment.  The Town Board could act at a special meeting already called to address other business on June 28th, or act sooner should the Board or Supervisor deem it necessary.