The career firefighters want the village voters to decide what happens to the paid firefighters.
Three weeks after losing their jobs in a cost-cutting measure, the eight career firefighters are collecting signatures to force a public referendum on the abolishment of the paid fire department.
“This will give everyone a chance to tell the village how they want their public safety handled,” said Vinny Lyons, president of the Port Chester firefighters union. “If you put it up to a public referendum, I think the residents would vote in favor of putting us back to work.”
The village board eliminated the paid firefighters and shifted to an all volunteer department on May 2, a move that village officials say will save an estimated $800,000. The department has 150 interior-trained volunteers, and 150 exterior-trained volunteers, according to village officials.
Richard Corenthal, the attorney representing the paid Port Chester firefighters, said New York State Village Law says the village board’s decision is subject to a permissive referendum.
He referred to Section 10-1020, which 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.”
To establish the referendum, Corenthal said the law 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 need at least 2,299 signatures.
“Is it going to be easy with the way the village has been dismissive of us? No,” Corenthal said. “But we get the sense that people are upset that this was done without their input. This would give them the chance to decide.”
Starting last week, the eight career Port Chester firefighters and neighboring fire union members have been have been going door-to-door asking for signatures. Using social media, they’ve been urging residents to visit what they’re calling their “command post” outside the Communications Workers America building at 345 Westchester Ave. in the village.
“We’re making progress,” Port Chester firefighter Sanjai Karnsotob said. “A lot of the residents are uninformed, so as we go door-to-door, we’re educating the residents.”
Mayor Dennis Pilla said there’s no legal authority for a referendum because the paid firefighters are supplemental and not considered to be the fire department in the village code.
“The official fire department of the Village of Port Chester is the combined seven volunteer companies, and that remains intact,” Pilla said. “Our lawyers have advised me that the issue is not subject to a permissive referendum.”
While the firefighters push for the referendum, some village board members are pushing to reinstate the eight firefighters through legislative action.
At Monday night’s meeting, village Trustee Greg Adams motioned to reinstate the firefighters. Adams was the lone dissenting vote against cutting the paid fire department on May 2.
The motion needed unanimous support but only received two other votes — Pilla and Trustee Luis Marino, who has been an active volunteer firefighter for the last 20 years.
The motion failed Monday night, but Pilla said reinstating the firefighters is scheduled to be discussed again at the June 6 village board meeting.
Marino said he was urged by the village attorney to recuse himself from the original vote on May 2. Had he not abstained from the vote, he said he would have voted against eliminating the firefighters.
“I was thinking and thinking since that (May 2) board meeting, and the more I think about it, the more I realize the right thing to do is have both staffs,” Marino said. “I agreed with Trustee Adams 100 percent. Let’s bring it up at the next meeting.”
When asked about a possible conflict of interest as a volunteer, Marino said he would resign as a volunteer if he had to.
“If I’m doing something with the volunteers, that’s one thing. But I don’t think there’s a conflict here,” Marino said. “But if they want me to resign, I’ll resign.”