Southampton Village to hire fire unification consultant

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Southampton Village plans to seek professional help to resolve the ongoing unification debate between the village fire department and the outlying fire district.

At a meeting of village trustees, fire chiefs and fire commissioners, Mayor Mark Epley and the rest of the Village Board committed to finding a consultant by July 1 who would examine the prospect of unifying the fire department and district and offer recommendations.

The meeting, which was held following regular business at a public session of the Village Board on Thursday, was the second time in two months the three groups came together to discuss the future of the area’s fire protection. As it stands, village residents pay for fire protection as part of their village taxes, and the Village Board oversees the fire department. The outlying protection area, which has existed since 1923, is comprised of Tuckahoe, Shinnecock Hills and parts of Water Mill.

In 2003, Southampton Town formally established the Southampton Fire District in the area, to be administered by five elected fire commissioners. The district collects fire protection taxes, and contracts with the village’s fire department for service.

Unifying, or consolidating, as the parties now prefer to call it, would remove the department from the purview of the Village Board and put it under the control of a new elected board of fire commissioners.

Village officials are considering placing such a proposal before the voters at the June 2009 mayoral and trustee elections.

Fire Commissioner Harald Steudte said that while he is pleased there is ongoing dialog, he said he gets the impression that the village is dragging its feet because the fire district is a “cash cow” for the village.

A major reason to consider consolidation is the concern that the outlying fire district could establish its own department and no longer contract with the village. District commissioners have taken issue with the fact that district taxpayers pay more for fire protection than village residents.

Also, under the status quo, the fire district is paying for protection, but not accruing any assets, such as firefighting equipment. Mayor Epley said one of the challenges the consultant will face is resolving the transfer of the fire trucks and other equipment from the village to the district.

In addition to hiring a consultant by July 1, Mayor Epley said Tuesday that he has also set a goal of finding a steering committee before the Village Board work session on May 20. He said he wants to put in place a committee of local business owners and others who have no association or history with the fire department and can make unbiased judgments. The committee will work with the consultant and the fire department membership to identify concerns, he said.

The fate of the Hampton Road firehouse has topped the list of concerns. In fact, Mayor Epley said at the Thursday meeting that the need for a new firehouse is what brought the parties to the table.

Village and fire officials all agreed that the firehouse was insufficient, and Trustee Paul Robinson emphasized that it is unsafe for the firefighters and does not meet Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards.

Mr. Robinson, the village’s fire commissioner, said that no matter the future of the district and the department, the firehouse will need to be renovated or replaced and that should not have to wait.

He added that he does not see the feasibility of renovating the Hampton Road house, and thinks the only option is to replace it. The firehouse was built when trucks were much smaller, so entering and pulling out from the building puts firefighters in harm’s way, he said.

The safety of the membership is the priority, fire Chief Joe Corr said at the meeting.

The chiefs also emphasized the importance of keeping the firefighters in the loop concerning consolidation.

“I don’t want the public to know before the membership knows,” said First Assistant Chief Roy “Buddy” Wines IV, adding that it would make the village, fire department and fire district appear unorganized.

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