On a Tuesday afternoon in December, Charlie Ennis donned a Vietnam Veteran baseball cap and flannel shirt and made the short trip from his home on Latta Road in Greece to the fire station down the street.
He voted for two commissioners in the northern Greek fire district, an annual civic service exercise that Ennis had completed over the past 25 years.
The polls opened at 2 p.m., and when they closed seven hours later, Ennis was one of 361 people who voted in a four-candidate race, according to election results.
"Citizens in a fire district or in elections should be interested in the society they live in," Ennis said. "Whether it's a choice, when they can have a voice in the community, in society, hey, join in."
Few choose it in Monroe County.
Elections for commissioners are held on the second Tuesday in December in each of the county's 23 fire districts. Overall, they attract a fraction of 1 percent of registered voters. In most cases, voter turnout can be counted in two digits.
For example, a competitive race for a seat as commissioner in the St. Paul Boulevard Fire District in Irondequoit drew 30 voters. In the neighboring Ridge-Culver Fire District, also in Irondequoit, 77 voters voted for a recently competitive race of commissioners. In the election of a controversial commissioner seat in the Mendon Fire District last month, 239 voters were elected.
Voters could be forgiven for missing a fire district election. The annual races are legally held during a busy holiday season and are for the most part poorly promoted. Notices for some elections are clearly displayed on fire station outer tents, but most are displayed on fire station bulletin boards or on district websites that few people visit.
The media also give a brief glimpse of the district commissioners' competitions, partly because they are not sexy. To apply for a seat as Commissioner, a candidate only needs to collect 25 signatures to take part in the vote. Campaigns are usually word of mouth.
Interviews with voters and commissioners during the December campaign season indicated that most eligible voters are either firefighters or family members and friends of firefighters.
"It's pretty difficult, it's unknown," said Bill Lawrence, an experienced firefighter in the Northern Greece Fire Department. "It's important that people know what the real problems are."
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Every election of commissioners involves overseeing hundreds of thousands to several million tax dollars, depending on the size of the fire district.
For example, the tiny Mumford Fire District, which serves Scottsville, has an annual budget of about $ 350,000. In contrast, the District of Northern Greece collected taxes of $ 11.1 million this year.
WHAT IS A FIRE AREA?
Fire-fighting districts are autonomous units of local government, independent of the cities and rural communities they serve.
City dwellers may never have heard of one. Rochester, like most cities and even some large towns and villages, finances its fire department from the community budget. Outside the city limits, small communities in fire districts receive fire departments.
The districts are headed by a board of five commissioners, each elected for terms of two or five years. According to state law, they are entitled to levy taxes and set budgets for fire protection.
There are 750 fire districts across New York that grossed $ 807 million
Property taxes last year, according to the State Comptroller & # 39; s Office. The 23 counties in Monroe County combined taxed residents of $ 79.2 million.
A CITY analysis found that the tax burden in Monroe County varies from district to district, in some cases dramatically, depending on a variety of factors including property values, the size of the coverage area, and whether the districts were paying or volunteer firefighters are manned.
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For example, the tax rate on services in the Barnard Fire District, which covers the south side of Greece with staff of professionals and volunteers, is $ 6.57 per $ 1,000 of estimated property value, while the tax rate in the Pittsford Fire District is 68 cents per $ 1,000 of the estimated value.
This means the average Barnard homeowner pays approximately $ 890 a year in fire safety taxes, compared to $ 188 for the average Pittsford homeowner.
But the number of volunteer firefighters is decreasing here and across the state.
John D & # 39; Alessandro, secretary of the New York State Firefighters Association, an advocacy group for volunteer firefighters, estimated the number of volunteers across the state has fallen from 120,000 to about 85,000 in the past 20 years.
There are a variety of factors driving the decline, from volunteers opting for paid jobs to the delicate suggestion of risking your life without pay. In the end, said D & # 39; Alessandro, the taxpayers feel the difference.
"Volunteer departments save taxpayers money," said D & # 39; Alessandro, who suggested volunteers save New York residents $ 5 billion annually.
CONTROL CAP? WHICH CONTROL CAP?
Like other tax authorities in New York City, fire counties are limited by law on how much tax they can collect each year. But commissioners can vote to override the tax cap, and they often do.
Look at the surge in taxes levied by the Laurelton Fire District in Irondequoit over the past year. The district limited itself to raising a little more than $ 1.3 million, but commissioners broke the cap and raised nearly $ 1.7 million – nearly 28 percent more than the limit.
The commissioners of Greece's Ridge-Culver fire district have decided for the past 10 years to override their cap every year, according to the state auditor. In 2012, the district's tax levy was $ 2.6 million. It will be nearly $ 4.4 million in 2021 – an increase of 66 percent over the decade.
Joe Camiolo is keen to keep fire district taxes in check in a region that is already near the state border in terms of property tax rates compared to property values in order to continue to apply for a seat as a commissioner in his district in Northern Greece. A volunteer firefighter since 1971 and a former commissioner, he lost the race last month but plans to run again next year.
Northern Greek commissioners broke the cap for this year to raise the tax levy to $ 11.1 million. Ten years ago the levy was $ 6.9 million – an increase of 61 percent.
"I'm very concerned about tax hikes," said Camiolo. "The governor has a tax cap that will be far exceeded this year and they won't see them until their tax bill is in in January."
Who takes care of the store?
Firefighters and commissioners attributed the voters' apathy to a general satisfaction with the fire brigade: when there is a fire, the fire brigade shows up.
The lack of turnout and island voters, however, hasn't gone unnoticed in Albany, where some lawmakers are pushing legislation to change the way fire district elections are conducted.
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Elections are governed by state city law and are not subject to the same oversight as the general election, even though counties administer millions of tax dollars.
Voting hours normally run from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. In most districts, the commissioners decide how the polling stations are occupied and who will count the votes. Districts may or may not use voting systems that conform to state electoral law.
Most districts use paper votes, and while the law prohibits commissioners from being electoral workers, there have been cases in the past where commissioners' relatives were allegedly counted in order to count ballots.
"Right now we have fire districts holding their own elections," said Tom Abinanti, a Democratic Congregation member from Westchester County, who has proposed laws to have the county electoral boards monitor the fire district elections and the date of the election to postpone to coincide with the school council elections. "I think the public should rightly ask," How can the candidates hold their own elections? "
Another member of the congregation, William Barclay, a Republican from Syracuse, has tabled a bill to hold fire district elections on the same day as the general election.
For Abinati, such measures are about transparency. With the current state of the system, the traditional controls and deliberations of most local fire district elections are absent.
Abinati acknowledged that fire inspector races are unlikely to generate the same level of interest as competitions for mayors or county executives. But maybe they should, he said.
Over the past five years, 126 fire safety districts have been audited by the State Comptroller & # 39; s Office and most of them have been found insufficiently controlled on all financial matters, from using credit cards to buying and protecting assets.
One of them was the St. Paul Boulevard Fire District, which the auditors said "failed to pass realistic budgets," overestimated spending by nearly $ 1 million over a four-year period, and bought a new insurance policy from a company that employed a commissioner who sat on the board's insurance committee.
"These people are here 24 hours a day," Abinati said of firefighters. "They go to the fire stations at night after work, they hang out, they help each other, they polish the equipment, God bless them, they do a great job."
“But,” he added, “that's all they see and no one says,“ What better way to do this? "
Gino Fanelli is a CITY employee. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or [email protected].