Just like elections themselves, election campaigns have consequences. Last week’s Nyack Fire District election brought a surge of new voters to the polls and a new member to the Board of Fire Commissioners. Challenger Peter Wortendyke defeated Keith Taylor, who had previously served as chairman for the past 14 years. Because this year’s race included lawn signs, online advertising and op-ed articles by each candidate, public awareness of the election was much higher. As a result, 2013 voter turnout was 70 percent higher than 2012.
Wortendyke bested Taylor 57 to 42 percent receiving 440 out of 768 votes cast, with one percent of the ballots indicating no preference for fire commissioner. In 2012, only 453 people voted. The 2013 voter turnout was 10 percent; last year only six percent of eligible voters cast a ballot.
The public also approved a $3 million bond proposal permitting the district to refinance the Park Street fire station with bonds in the range of 3.5-3.8% for up to of 30 years. In 2011, the original 7.1% interest note was refinanced as a variable rate loan. The district is currently paying 3.42% but that number could rise as the economy improves.
The second bond referendum question also covered transferring the ownership of the Park Street fire station between two business units of the Nyack Fire District. Many voters were confused by the purpose of this transfer because they had assumed the Fire District already owned this property. The ballot question stated:
Shall the Bond Resolution… [authorize] the acquisition of the existing Park Street fire station that is currently leased by said Fire District, located at 15 Park Street, Nyack, New York, including the two adjoining parcels of land located at 11 Park Street and 19 Park Street and all site work improvements, original furnishings, equipment, machinery and apparatus and legal expenses and other costs incidental thereto and the financing thereof, at a maximum cost of $3,000,000.
Fire District Attorney Donald Feerick says the purpose of this language was to transfer ownership between a subordinate unit of the district to the parent organization responding to concerns about good governance practices in the fire district. Feerick says the Nyack Fire District oversees seven fire stations (Jackson Hose, Orangetown, Fire Patrol, Empire, etc.) and one business unit called “Fire Protection” that serves a holding company that helps to limit the liability of the fire district. “The holding company arrangement has drawn the ire of some who see no need to limit the fire district’s exposure to liability,” says Feerick. Using the example of someone who slips and falls on fire district property, Feerick says an injured party could pursue the district’s equity in the realty on a judgment, but they could not pursue the district’s other assets. “Business people have been using corporate entities to shield liability for generations. The debate has made some feel more comfortable the fire district should hold the title to the new firehouse,” he says.
Wortendyke made the initial funding of the Park Street fire station an election issue, citing a December 2009 report by NYS Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli critical of the Nyack Fire District’s plan to finance this project. DiNapoli contended the fire district acted illegally by disregarding a December 2004 voter approved mandatory bond referendum to finance the acquisition and construction of the Park Street firehouse, instead creating two not-for-profit corporations to avoid putting the project out to competitive bid.