Fire Districts Under Fire; Costs And Expenditures Scrutinized in Newsday Special Report
If you think its tough to get taxpayers - let alone officialdom - to make waves about Sanitary Districts and Water Districts, just try getting someone to take a closer look at how Long Island's Fire Districts operate.
Fire Districts - those other tax-dollar guzzling fiefdoms that do business "independent" of government control and oversight - have long flown under the radar, avoiding public scrutiny of any kind. Post 9/11, the world of Long Island's firefighters has been nothing less than untouchable.
Quietly over the years, community leaders have been questioning budgets, costs and perceived abuses, only to be stonewalled by the local Fire Districts and largely ignored by local officials.
Even the media, asked to investigate what goes on behind the firehouse doors, was reluctant to do an expose -- more, we suspect, a case of corporate jitters than the front-line reporters' unwillingness to break the story.
This week, in a special report titled Firealarm, Newsday takes a long, hard look at what's going on at Long Island's Fire Districts. [SEE www.newsday.com/firealarm.]
It isn't about the firefighter -- other than how difficult it has become to attract volunteers into service, and the fact that firefighters who would expose abuses within Fire Districts quickly become the pariahs of both department and community.
It is, however, about declining service calls - particularly for fires - escalating costs, and internal operations that, despite the outward appearances of local control (like the Sanitary Districts and Water Districts, Fire District Commissioners are "elected" by the public), remain shrouded in secrecy in what essentially remain good old boys clubs.
When was the last time a Fire District on Long Island was audited? How many residents - other than the friends and family of firefighters - actually vote in Fire District elections? How many elections for Commissioners are contested? [This blogger recalls a contested election for Fire Commissioner where, if you supported the "outsider" and your support was known to the "insiders," you were bullied, harrassed, and, should you dare to show up at the firehouse to cast your ballot, stared down by the poll workers and the sitting Commissioners who stood watch outside the voting booth. No intimidation there!]
Then there's the question of consolidation of Fire Districts, with the possible elimination of some Departments. Newsday reports that there is now more fire equipment and apparatus on Long Island than in all of the fire companies in New York City and Los Angeles combined. Just how many independent fire departments do we need to cover districts which, in some cases, are as small as one (1) square mile?
And what of the Fire District's "reserve" funds, monies collected above and beyond annual operating costs which are rolled over into District accounts and utilized for building campaigns and sundry incidentals over which the taxpayer has little or no say? How many Fire Districts refund the surplus to the taxpayers, or so much as tell them about it before again raising the tax the following year? We're talking, in some instances, of millions of dollars in the Fire Districts' coffers, with no accountability to the public.
They don't want you to know. They don't want you to ask. They don't want you to look. And heaven help you should you question the propriety of any conduct of your local Fire Department. "How dare you criticize the bravest of the brave! Those who place their lives on the line, as volunteers, no less, 24/7. Why, its simply unamerican."
No, it is not about the firefighter. It is, however, all about how our tax dollars (and "voluntary contributions," for those who reside in Voluntary Fire Districts*) are being spent by quasi-governmental agencies that, until now, have been answerable to no one.
One suspects that the State Comptroller, Alan Hevesi, will soon begin to take a closer look at Long Island's Fire Districts and Departments and how they spend our money. It is high time. No doubt there will be an uproar at the firehouses -- "Who are you to question expenditures, of any kind, made to protect the public, and the costs of maintaining our fire departments, home of the brave, if not anywhere near free."
It is time that someone examined the inner workings of our Fire Districts and Departments. Bravo, Newsday, for taking the operations of these most sensitive Special Districts out of the shadows and into the cleansing light of day. You won't be bullied -- intimidated by those who would label you as disloyal by virtue of your willingness to question -- and neither will we.
*Should you fail to make a "contribution" - above and beyond the property tax you pay - you will find a uniformed firefighter at the door to your house to personally collect. No axe in hand, but he might as well have one!
For more on Long Island's fire service, read The Big Burn as featured in the Long Island Press.
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Dissent Is Not Disloyalty. . .
In the 1950s, if you spoke out against the outrages of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the House Unamerican Activities Committee, or the Internal Security Act, you were labeled a Communist, blacklisted, and disgraced as a sympathizer of causes that ran counter to the American ideal.
In the early 1970s, if you protested the war in Vietnam, the White House's "secret plan to end the war," or J. Edgar Hoover's wiretaps in the name of national security, your were disloyal to your country, summarily admonished to either "love it or leave it."
Today, should you dare to question the motives of going to war or staying at war in Iraq, the provisions of the Patriot Act, or the actions of a President said to be taken to protect a nation and make the world safe for democracy, you are derided, and accused of rewriting history.
Closer to home, its more than friendly fire that comes our way when we protest the abuses of the Sanitary Districts and the tyrannies of one-party rule at Town Hall. And just wait and see what we'll be called as we challenge the Fire Districts.
Ah, the more things change.
There's plenty we could say when it comes to those who would silence the debate -- whether that debate be of matters of global concern or on the costs of picking up the trash on our own block -- as there is concerning those who would remain silent where a rising concert of voices is both warranted and necessary.
With reverence to those who have said it and are saying it, we defer to someone who, perhaps, said it best -- the late Edward R. Murrow, correspondent for CBS News:
"No one familiar with the history of this country can deny that congressional committees are useful. It is necessary to investigate before legislating, but the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one and the junior Senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly.
We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men— not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.
This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.
The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn't create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it— and rather successfully. Cassius was right. 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.'
Good night, and good luck."
See It Now, March 9, 1954
Powerful words then. No less meaningful and relevant words now. Words for all of us to think about. Words for each of us to live by.