Glad That Election is Over? Now it’s Time to Vote Again!

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff.

Paul BishopNew York Fire District Election Day for FIRE DISTRICT commissioners is Tuesday, December 11. Surprised?  You are not alone.  In 2010, only 20 people showed up to vote in the Monroe County Town of Brighton’s fire district election. The year before, only 19 voted in the county’s Town of Henrietta. These elections have a real impact on fire district tax rates, but few people vote in them.

By submitting Freedom of Information Law requests to several Monroe County towns in my own community, I was able to secure voter turnout for a number of fire district elections held in the past 3 years. Average voter turnout across these districts was under one-half of one percent—fewer than 5 of every 1000 registered voters cast ballots. Unlike the election day that just passed, there is no “Get Out the Vote” effort attached to fire district elections—these elections are little noted, unless there is a specific financial issue such as bonding for a large purchase.

Sample of Recent Fire District Elections

Monroe County NY

Fire District(s) Towns Registered Voters Votes 2009 Votes 2010 Votes 2011
Brighton Brighton * 18,600 61 20 59
Penfield, Northeast Joint, and West Webster Penfield / Webster 53,560 380 267 251
Henrietta Henrietta 21,838 19 145 91
* An estimated 85 % of town voters, remainder in West Brighton Fire Protection District

Your tax dollars at work

In 2012, the 24 fire districts in Monroe County levied a combined $56.3 million in taxes. This is an increase of $21 million (in 2012 dollars) or 58% since 2002. Much of the increase is the result of fire districts and the departments that serve them expanding their paid staff in response to declining numbers of volunteers and growing demand for service, especially for emergency medical services (EMS). Regardless of the reason for increased spending, it has occurred with little public input.

To improve public engagement in these important decisions, I have developed a short checklist to prepare voters served by New York fire districts.

Step 1: Find out if you live in a fire district

The delivery of fire service in NYS is complex and confusing. All cities and many villages have their own fire departments, which are controlled by their respective city councils or village boards. Fire service in the rest of the state is controlled either by fire protection districts, which are funded under the supervision of town boards, or fire districts, which are independent local governments with the power to tax. It is these independent fire districts that are holding elections December 11.

In Monroe County, if you live in the Town of Brighton north of the Erie Canal, or the towns of Gates, Greece, Hamlin, Henrietta, Irondequoit, Mendon, Ogden, Penfield, Pittsford, Rush, or Webster, you live in a fire district.

View a larger map

NOTE: Fire district borders need not match municipal borders. For example, in Monroe County the towns of Greece and Irondequoit are each served by 5 fire districts.

Fire districts are responsible for providing fire protection and emergency response in specific geographic areas. Each is governed by 5 commissioners, elected to overlapping 5-year terms. These commissioners have sole authority to set the fire district tax levy, which is then collected by the town. The town has no power to set the tax rate.

You can also determine if you live in a fire district by looking at your tax bill. Again, in Monroe County you can go here and find your combined tax statement. If you live in a town outside Monroe County, your town clerk can tell you whether you are served by a fire district, and if so, which one.

Step 2: Learn the issues

What is going on in your fire district? Are there any planned capital expenses (e.g., fire equipment, facility)? Is your district looking to add paid staff? Is the district’s fire department able to provide an appropriate, timely response to calls in your community? Is the department responding to EMS calls? How does the fire district communicate with the community?

Fire districts are not in the habit of sharing information. Most residents are unaware of how fire protection is financed in their own community, and thus do not seek out information. While many fire departments have websites, few fire districts in the Rochester area post the minutes of commissioners’ meetings or their district budgets on the website maintained by the fire department that serves the fire district.

On December 11, the only item on the ballot this year in most fire districts will be the election of a commissioner. Although this is not a vote on the fire district budget, the commissioners are the only people who determine the budget. In some fire districts, there may also be a vote on capital expenses.

Step 3: Go vote

On December 11, polls must be open from 6 – 9 p.m., and some districts have longer hours. The vote is generally at the headquarters station for the fire district. CGR has gathered voting information for all the fire districts located in Monroe County here. Outside of Monroe County, your town clerk or local fire station should have that information.

Step 4: Engage your local fire department

The time to learn what’s happening at your local fire department is not when you have an emergency or even the week before an election. The next time there is an open house, stop by and learn what they do. Fire district commissioners meet regularly and the meetings are open to the public. Attend the meetings or request the minutes. Let the commissioners know that you care.

The tax cap applies to fire districts

Fire districts are bound by the same property tax cap as other local governments in NYS (see recent Rochester Democrat & Chronicle story here). But the property tax cap only matters if informed voters engage the commissioners—this year, 4 of Irondequoit’s 5 districts announced that they will exceed the cap, as have the Gates and Ridge Road fire districts.

These tax levy increases may be wholly justified. I know that the training demands on fire departments have increased dramatically in the past decade. Moreover, the number of willing and available volunteers has been declining, forcing many fire companies to shift to a partly paid staff. And the cost of essential equipment such as protective gear and fire apparatus has been climbing steadily in recent years.

Show your interest

Still, budgets are set with very little taxpayer participation. Get engaged. Find out if your local fire service is doing its best to protect your community today and in the future. Chances are both the firefighters and the commissioners will appreciate your interest, and in the process you will become a more informed taxpayer and voter. Perhaps you might even find the time to volunteer for your local fire department. Not of all of the fire district’s needs involve emergency response and every volunteer department needs some sort of assistance.