Members of the Bridgehampton Fire Department and its board of fire commissioners were criticized on Monday night by some members of the Bridgehampton Citizens Advisory Committee. The committee expressed concern that the department was moving too quickly and without solid plans for the future in its quest to purchase a Main Street, Bridgehampton property adjacent to the department’s current headquarters on School Street.
In a press release issued last week, the Bridgehampton Fire District announced it has entered into a contract to purchase the Pulver Gas Property, owned by the Pulver and Ensign families, for $3.9 million. According to board of fire commissioners chairman Steve Halsey, purchasing the property will enable the department to explore plans for expansion in the future. Their current firehouse, he said, was far too small to accommodate the department, which covers a district that stretches from parts of Wainscott through Sagaponack and Bridgehampton and into Water Mill.
The eight-company fire department also includes the Bridgehampton Ambulance Company, which is responsible for emergency calls throughout the district. According to Halsey, their offices amount to a space about the size of a closet.
In order to move forward with the purchase, the department must receive approval from voters throughout the fire district via a referendum vote that will be held on Tuesday, October 18 from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Bridgehampton Fire Department.
The district will also host an informational meeting, prior to the vote, on Friday, October 14 at 6 p.m.
At Monday night’s CAC meeting, Halsey, along with a group of fire commissioners and chiefs, explained that earlier this year district officials shelved plans to add on to the current building after the price tag came in at $8 million. At the same time, the fire district was made aware that the Pulver Gas property was in fact for sale.
“That it even became available is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Halsey.
After negotiating through the summer, the district entered into a formal contact with the property owners, said Halsey. He added the Pulver Gas Company will remain a tenant in the space for two years — paying $100,000 annually in rent, which the district will use to pay down the $3.9 million debt. During that time the department will assess if, when and how it will expand the department.
According to Halsey, the district must close on the sale by December 15.
The fire district’s current building, said Halsey, which was constructed in the early 1980s, cannot accommodate the office space the district needs, or its equipment. Halsey noted that fire engines and ambulances have grown in length and height in the last two decades, as has the level of care residents receive from the ambulance corps.
According to commissioner John Muse, the ambulance company responds to over 600 calls a year and is staffed wholly by volunteers, who are dwindling in numbers.
Muse said one of the problems, he believes, is the lack of space in the fire department which does not allow for a place for first responders and EMTs to gather and discuss a call after they are finished with their case.
“This is just one of the aspects,” he said. “I feel the Pulver Gas purchase is beneficial for the whole district, the whole community.”
Halsey added that before the department could renovate or raze the Pulver Gas building on that parcel, it would have to go back to the community for permission.
“If the economy takes a downturn and we enter a depression we will not do anything,” said Halsey, noting the department has been frugal in both its budgets and equipment spending. Its newest fire truck dates back to 2002, the next newest truck is an engine purchased in 1989.
“So we are not asking for an open checkbook,” said Halsey, adding the district may decide to keep the Pulver Gas building as is and simply utilize the existing office space.
He also said both appraisals the district had done on the parcel placed a market of $4 million to $4.2 million on the land.
From a tax perspective, Halsey noted Bridgehampton’s fire district has a taxable valuation of $13 billion — the largest in all of Southampton Town. According to figures Halsey presented at the meeting, a resident with a home valued at $1 million would have to pay an additional $21 to $27 annually to the fire district to allow for the purchase of the Pulver Gas property, depending on the interest rate and whether or not the district sought a 15 year or 20 bond.
Resident Leonard Davenport did not question the need of the fire department for the space, and said he understood the district was faced with a short window of time to purchase the property. But he added that he believed the district needed to publicize this possible purchase and its plans earlier than it did.
CAC vice chairman Steven Steinberg added he would like to see an assessment of what the needs of the fire department actually are. Steinberg said he believed holding the hearing just four days before a referendum vote precludes the community from being able to discuss the proposal before voting. He said the district should look at asking for a contract extension to allow the community more time to investigate the proposal before voting on it.
“You should have come to us with a plan on what you were going to do and what it will cost down the road,” added Steinberg, who also said he believes if the fire district handles this properly it will be approved for its funding.
Nick Hemby, a 14-year-member of the department and an EMT, questioned the CAC on the value they place their own lives — lives protected by the fire department and ambulance corps at little cost by members of the community who are volunteers.
Bridgehampton Historical Society vice president John Millard suggested the district come back to residents on October 14 with different scenarios for expansion and what they would cost.
“Everyone in this room supports the concept that the fire department should expand, if it needs to expand,” said CAC chairman Fred Cammann. “What we are saying is we don’t want you to lose the vote.”
CAC member Peter Wilson added the district should be able to come up with draft figures for different expansion scenarios before the October 14 meeting.
In a letter sent to members of the CAC and the press after the meeting, Davenport reaffirmed his support for the purchase of the Pulver Gas property.
“That they buried the proposed bond issue in a brief public notice and planned on only four days following a public hearing before a vote on a $3.9 million bond issue should not overshadow the need, the logic, or probably the reasonable cost of the acquisition,” he wrote.
Following the meeting, Halsey said the board of fire commissioners would meet on Wednesday night and consider the responses they heard from the CAC and if they can incorporate some of their ideas into their proposal before October 14.