Tag Archive | "Bridgehampton Fire District"

Treasurer Sues Bridgehampton Fire District for $40 Million in Federal Court

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By Stephen J. Kotz

Attorneys for Charles Butler, the longtime treasurer and former secretary of the Bridgehampton Fire District, filed a federal lawsuit this week seeking up to $40 million in damages for what they say was a concerted effort by the district’s fire commissioners to punish him and damage his reputation over his objection to the sale of fire district property.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court by Lawrence Kelly of Bayport. Thomas Horn of Sag Harbor is also representing Mr. Butler.

On Wednesday, Mr. Horn said Mr. Butler’s troubles began last summer when he objected to the district’s decision to sell a 6,000-square-foot parcel bordering Wainscott Pond on Main Street in Wainscott for $940,000 to the billionaire Ronald Lauder, who has extensive land holdings around the pond. Mr. Horn said the board’s then chairman, Steven Halsey, wanted to sell the land to Mr. Lauder, while Mr. Butler opposed it, telling the commissioners during an open meeting that other bidders had offered as much as $70,000 more for the property.

What followed, according to Mr. Horn, was an effort, led by Mr. Halsey, to get rid of Mr. Butler by raising suspicions of financial wrongdoing on his part. Included in that campaign was an advertisement placed in The Southampton Press and East Hampton Star before a district election in December raising questions about Mr. Butler’s performance and outlining plans to save the district money by eliminating many of his paid job duties, he said.

“It’s clearly obvious that he had offended their plans to make sure Mr. Lauder got the property,” Mr. Horn said. “That’s a freedom of speech thing pure and simple.”

In December, voters approved the land sale but they elected Bruce Dombkowski, a write-in candidate, over Mr. Halsey and turned down a proposal to eliminate the elected treasurer’s position.

In January, Mr. Horn said, the fire commissioners did not reappoint Mr. Butler as secretary and illegally eliminated his salary as treasurer. He had been paid $60,000 plus benefits for both jobs.

Brad Pinsky, the fire district’s attorney, had a different take. After being hired last summer. Mr. Pinsky said he compiled 18 pages of “criticisms and strong concerns about the performance of the treasurer” during a financial review of the district.

The attorney, who said he will not represent the district in the lawsuit but be a witness on its behalf, said that while Mr. Butler has charged he was fired from his position as secretary, in reality he had stopped attending meetings or performing the duties of either of his two jobs in September.

He said Mr. Butler inappropriately solicited higher prices for the property that was being put up for sale after the district had received Mr. Lauder’s bid.

Mr. Pinsky also said district officials had found purchase orders for supplies presigned by merchants and alleged that Mr. Butler had used district money to purchase goods for his construction company.

“I brought these concerns to the full board in August. We could have made them public then, but we didn’t,” he said. “It had nothing to do with any real estate sale.”

“We have tried very hard to negotiate an end to this. We have offered to sit down together and find a way to work together, and we offered, for lack of a better word, a divorce if the relationship is something that can’t be repaired,” said Mr. Horn. “But they want their pound of flesh.”

District Can Buy Pulver

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By Andrew Rudansky

The referendum asking for a $3.9 million bond to purchase the Pulver Gas property on Montauk Highway, Bridgehampton passed in a 138-20 vote in what Bridgehampton’s Board of Fire Commissioners Chairman Steven Halsey said was the next step in a long process.

Halsey called the passing of the referendum on Tuesday, October 18 was “a win-win-win. It’s a win for the people, it’s a win for the department, and it’s a win for the entire fire district.” The commissioners have argued that, as the demands on firefighting in the district change, the department needs space in which to expand.

With this hurdle crossed, the district must now finalize the purchase of the property by December 15.

The passed bond referendum will effectively increase the taxes of all residents of the Bridgehampton Fire District for the entire period of the 15 year bond.

The fire district affected by the new tax stretches from Watermill, containing Bridgehampton, Sagaponack as well as parts of Wainscott.

While the exact increase for each citizen won’t be determined until the rate of the bond is finalized, the fire department released estimates of the tax increase based on a bond rate between 3.5 and 3.75 percent. If a house is assessed at $600,000, the expected increase in annual property taxes is $15.31. If assessed at $1 million, the increase will be $25.69. If a house is assessed at $2 million, the owner could expect an increase of $51.38.

At an information session last Friday, Halsey made the case for why the department thought it was necessary to purchase the nearly half-acre property from the Pulver and Ensign families who are the current owners.

“[The Bridgehampton Fire Department] is currently on a very small piece of property,” said Halsey, “from the outside it might look expansive, but it is not.”

Halsey along with the other members of the Board of Fire Commissioners explained that the current facilities were inadequate for the increased demands put on the department.

In 2010 the Bridgehampton Fire Department received 1322 emergency-related calls. So far this year the department has already received 1100 such calls.

“The fire service has changed over the years, it is not the same animal that it was ten years ago, not even five years ago,” said Halsey, “We would be far more efficient and productive in handling these challenges with the new Pulver property.”

“Trust me, if we don’t buy it, somebody else will definitely snatch it up,” said Halsey at last week’s information session. He said that the real estate agent representing the Pulver Gas Company had several other commercial parties who were interested in making an offer.

The property has a 95-foot front property edge looking out onto Montauk Highway, contains a two story, 8,000 square foot main building and a 2,300 square foot garage.

A stipulation in the purchasing contract allows Pulver Gas Company to continue to occupy the property for the next two years as tenants of the Bridgehampton Fire Department. The company would pay an annual rent of $100,000 to stay in the building. This money would go directly to mitigating the cost to the taxpayers.

At the meeting, the Board of Fire Commissioners also proposed selling an unused 60-by-100 foot piece in Wainscott owned by the department to further offset the cost of the bond.

Halsey said he was unsure how the department will use the property once Pulver Gas leaves in 2013, mentioning numerous options including knocking the building down for parking, renovating the building to accommodate more meeting rooms, or even keeping the building as is and using it for offices.

“During that two year period the Board of Fire Commissioners will decide exactly what to do with the property,” said Halsey.


Mixed Reviews on Bridgehampton Fire District Purchase of Pulver Property

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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.