Whether the public gets to vote on the abolishment of the paid fire department will likely be decided in the courts.
Eight career firefighters who lost their jobs in May handed the village clerk a 485-page petition with 4,354 signatures on Wednesday, nearly double the amount required by New York State law for a referendum.
The village responded Friday with a 37-word letter saying the petition “has no relevance” to the village board’s May 2 decision to shift to an all-volunteer fire department as a cost-cutting move that village officials say will save an estimated $800,000. Officials say there are 150 interior-trained volunteers and 150 exterior-trained volunteers.
Richard Corenthal, the attorney representing the eight career firefighters, said the next step will be a lawsuit against the village.
“Port Chester citizens should know that the village thinks the citizens have no say in abolishing a paid fire department and their opinions are irrelevant,” Corenthal said in an email. “A lawsuit will be prepared to enforce the law to ensure that Port Chester registered voters can have a say on this important public safety issue.”
Mayor Dennis Pilla said the village board’s action on May 2 is not subject to a permissive referendum.
“The criteria for a referendum is very specific according to state law,” Pilla said. “We were advised the board’s budget decision does not meet that criteria.”
The legal debate may center around how state law defines the term “fire department.” Section 10-1020 of New York State law, which governs villages, the law states, “The board of trustees of any village may, by resolution, abolish, in whole or in part, the fire department in such village, which action of the board of trustees shall be subject to a permissive referendum as defined in this chapter.”
Since the paid department was eliminated, Corenthal said the board’s action is subject to a referendum, which requires the firefighters to get signatures from 20 percent of registered voters as of the previous general election.
There were 11,491 eligible voters in the village in the previous general election, Corenthal said, so the firefighters needed at least 2,299 signatures. They got nearly double the amount.
But village officials have said the board’s decision is not subject to a referendum because the paid firefighters are supplemental and not considered to be the fire department in the village code. The official village fire department according to the village charter, Pilla said, is the combined seven volunteer companies.
The village is already trying to mend broken relationships with its neighbor Rye Brook, which filed a lawsuit against Port Chester in early May for violating a shared fire services contract between the two villages that dates back to 2013.