Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Fool Us Once, Shame On You. . .

Fool Us Twice... Three Times... More? Fire District Plays Fast And Loose With Tax Dollars

$55,000 to buy a race car. $260,000 to refurbish a rec room. A $2.9 million fire district budget, recently adopted by commissioners in Farmingville (Long Island), also includes a $12,000 raise for a recently hired maintenance mechanic, who just happens to be the son of a sitting Commissioner, the stepson of a second, and the godson of a third. [This inbreeding in the Special Districts has gotten way out of hand!] SEE Newsday, Fire District Spending Has Farmingville Hot.

Sure, the firefighters are volunteers. They work hard. They put their lives on the line to protect life and property. But race cars? Quarter million dollar improvements to rec rooms? Rampant nepotism? Why not? After all, who's to complain? The voters approved all of this, right?

Well, not exactly. The fire district's commissioners approved all of this, and now, Farmingville residents are burning mad.

"A new race car will hone the volunteers' firefighting skills by enabling them to compete in drill tournaments," Commissioner Edward Stewart Jr., father of the mechanic, told Newsday.

Yeah, right. And a new rec room -- replete with beer on tap, we surmise -- will give the firefighters a leg up on manning the hoses. Give us, the not too bright but still reeling taxpayers, a break!

So, why did residents "pass" this budget, chock full of "gimmes" for boys who like to play with fire truck (and, apparently, race car) toys?

Well, call it a combination of the old "we didn't know" (as in "who really looks at budgets anyway, whether they're for fire districts or school districts?"), "we didn't vote" (as in "who knew there was an election?"), and "out of the woodwork" come the firefighters, (as in ex-chiefs, commissioners, and their sons, stepsons, and godsons, are the many among the few who come out to vote on the fire district's budget). [Actually, residents don't vote on the fire district budgets -- the Commissioners do. Residents elect the Commissioners, who themselves decide what the budget will be and how the money will be spent. So much for "local control" over local spending, the raison d'etre for special districts on Long Island.]

Commissioner Stewart tells Newsday that having a shiny new race care "fosters camaraderie among volunteer firefighters." Anyone ever hear of a company picnic, a weekly softball game, or a group outing to the Long Island Ducks? [Of course not! We need race cars and scuba diving trips to the Bahamas to foster camaraderie and hone skills...]

On the charge of patronage in the first degree, Commissioner Norman Neill, stepfather of the mechanic in question, opined, "It's not like nepotism where you took someone that's an idiot and gave him a job."

Don't be silly. That would make him a Commissioner!

The NYS Legislature has tightened regulations of late, enacting laws designed not to foster camaraderie, but rather, accountability. While certainly a step in the right direction, we wonder if the band-aid over the festering wound will heal a broken system and limit the spread of infection, as residents continue to bleed out greenbacks through ever-increasing property taxes.

There are renewed calls in Farmingville -- as is often the case after the horse has left the barn -- for increased scrutiny by way of audits and external oversight. Well and good. Independent review and reporting is both necessary and beneficial.

Still, when it is our money on the line, shouldn't we, as taxpayers, take a more active role in watching the pot BEFORE the commissioners are elected, the budgets are passed, and the money is allocated?

Ignorance -- of Special District elections, Commissioner-derived budgets, and discretionary spending run amuck -- may be bliss, but it sure is costly to the taxpayers here on Long Island.

In Farmingville, that's an increase of some 26% over last year's fire district budget. "Gentlemen, start your engines."
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Election Day is Tuesday, November 7th. [NOT for fire commissioners, but hey, you have to start somewhere...]
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READ Newsday's special report, FireAlarm.

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