Tuesday, October 21, 2008

We Didn't Start The Fire

Special District Budgets Come Under Fire Anew

Well, if its Autumn, can special district elections -- at least in the fire and water districts -- be far behind?

As costs rise, particularly for fuel, budgets skyrocket, and the taxpayer/homeowner braces for yet another hit.

Yes, there is now more transparency, with fire district budget hearing dates required to be posted online by the respective townships in which they operate. But how many citizens (a) are aware of these postings, and/or (b) actually attend the budget hearings?

Whose fault is it when special district budgets rise, seemingly without limit? Okay, its the stupid economy, where we all pay more just to keep pace. More than this, however, it is the benign neglect, not so much of local government -- though they could do much more by way of oversight -- but rather, on our part, in turning the other cheek when it comes to watching where our money goes.

In these uncertain times, we should, by all rights, be guarding our wallets more dearly, and watching the pot more closely.
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From Newsday:

Fire district budgets on the rise

As taxpayers across Long Island get a chance today to see how fire districts spend their money, a sampling shows volunteer agencies' budgets have continued to rise over the past four years at a steady pace.

"I don't know what's driving those increases without looking at each one individually," said William N. Young, counsel for the Association of Fire Districts of the state of New York. "Maybe it's the cost of fuel . . . Or maybe a bond issue passed by some, which would drive up the budget."

Fire districts are required by state laws enacted in 2007 to hold public hearings on the third Tuesday in October. Today fire districts will explain to residents what it costs to operate their district.A sampling of 50 fire districts shows budgets have risen by an average of 21 percent. In the Syosset Fire District, the rise in costs, about 38 percent over four years, can be attributed to a wide range of necessary expenses, said spokesman Robert Leonard.

The $7,108,700 budget is a 3.9 percent increase from last year, officials said.

"Over this period of time, we have had several capital programs, all passed by referendum, enacted to ensure the highest levels of response," Leonard said, including the leases on fire trucks, ambulances and purchases of equipment.Commack Fire District budget has risen about 50 percent over the past four years, to $3,638,427. A phone call seeking comment was not returned.

Hicksville, which at one time had the highest costs on Long Island, has decreased its budget by 7 percent in four years to a proposed $5,658,000.

"While we are always conscious of the bottom line, the safety of our residents as well as the volunteer members remains a top priority," Fire Commissioner Harry J. Single Jr. said in a statement yesterday.

Fire districts, and fire departments contracted by towns, must post the hearing time and location of meetings on town and district Web sites, message boards located at town halls and firehouses, and publicize the meetings in local newspapers five days in advance of the hearing.

As of yesterday, only the Town of North Hempstead did not post fire district hearing notices on its Web site, as required. Most districts or incorporated fire departments posted the information on either or both Web sites - the town and individual fire district sites. Young said many of the Web sites are run by the fire departments, not the districts.

The additional transparency regarding financial disclosure started with legislative bills, most enacted last year, that were introduced by Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst) after a series of Newsday stories on the lack of fire agencies oversight. Before 2007, the districts were not required to present their budgets to the public.

Louise Delgado, president of the Suffolk County Fire Districts Association, said he sees a great change in district officials' attitude toward the new transparency laws."The taxpayer needs to know how their money is being spent, and why it's being spent," he said. "With the hearings, now they can."

Copyright © 2008, Newsday Inc.
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Postings of Fire District Hearings by Town:

Town of Hempstead

Town of North Hempstead

Town of Oyster Bay

Town of Babylon (no posting)

Town of Brookhaven (no posting)

Town of Riverhead (no posting)

Nassau County Fire Districts

Suffolk County Fire Districts

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