Fire protection could increase significantly if the Village of Larchmont were to form a consolidated fire district with nine other municipalities in Southern Westchester, as suggested by a study released Wednesday, July 1 by the Michaelian Institute of Pace University. Costs to local taxpayers, however, are difficult to assess without further research.
The study examined fire departments and districts in Eastchester, Fairview, Greenville, Hartsdale, Larchmont (Village), Mount Vernon, New Rochelle, Pelham, Pelham Manor, and Scarsdale. It found none consistently compliant with the highly respected standards set by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The study shows how the municipalities could reach NFPA compliance by:
- forming a consolidated district;
- hiring 178 more firefighters and officers and 50 more civilian employees; and
- off-setting the additional $22.9 million in annual costs with a potential $14 million to $47 million annual savings in homeowner and business insurance premiums
What Would Happen in Larchmont?
In Larchmont, the study proposes to increase typical coverage from 2 firefighters and one officer to 6 firefighters and 2 officers. In the event of a fire, 16 firefighters and 6 officers would respond from several fire stations. Larchmont would also respond to some locations in New Rochelle. Larchmont Village Hall would require modifications to accommodate the expanded force.
There would be similar reconfigurations and assignments across all ten communities. Each community would have more firefighters stationed locally and a faster response from adjacent stations.
Meeting the NFPA Standard
A consolidated district, as outlined in the study, would bring Larchmont and the other communities in compliance with NFPA standard 1710 for an all-paid staff. This requires arrival of a fire engine to the scene of an alarm within 4 minutes, and arrival of at least 22 equipped firefighters within 8 minutes.
NFPA standard 1720 for a combined paid-volunteer department in a densely populated area like Larchmont requires having 15 firefighters arrive within 9 minutes.
Today, Larchmont cannot consistently comply with either NFPA 1710 or 1720, standards which are desirable but not required by federal or state regulations. To meet the 1710 standard without consolidation, according to the study, would require Larchmont to hire 79 additional staff: 11 firefighters and 4 officers per shift or 58 more firefighters and 21 additional officers overall.
What Happens to Property Taxes?
Firefighting personnel costs would go from $88.1 million per year, the current aggregate in the 10 municipalities based on 2006 budgets, to $111 million for the consolidated district. This would pay for 178 additional firefighters. Tax payers might see a cut in their municipal taxes, as fire protection costs are removed, but they would pay a new fire district tax.
Estimating impacts of consolidation on local property taxes would require additional analyses of tax rolls that were beyond the scope of this study, according to Michael A. Genito, the study’s director.
However, these impacts could be large. In the new district, Larchmont would be more than 4% of the tax base. But its current firefighting budget is less than 2.5% of what the ten communities currently spend. Since fire districts are financed by district-wide property tax assessments, Larchmont’s 2.5% share of $88.1 million could jump to more than 4% of $111 million. This could double what Larchmonters pay for fire protection.
How About Insurance Savings?
The study estimates potential insurance premium savings – as much as $47 million per year – if there are:
- improvements in each municipality’s public protection classification (PPC) from the Insurance Service Office (ISO), and
- changes in state rules about how ISO ratings are applied, and
- decisions by insurance companies to reduce the fire insurance premiums due to improved ratings.
Larchmont, for example, has a PPC#3. Consolidation, according to the study, would result in an initial upgrade to PPC#2, with a potential fire insurance premium reduction of 8%. There could be an additional improvement to PPC#1 and an additional insurance reduction of 8%. For Larchmont commercial and residential properties overall, the study estimates savings between $328,210 and $971,205 per year.
However, under the current New York State classification system, PPC ratings from 1 to 3 are often lumped together into a top tier. Josh Mandell, Larchmont’s newest trustee and fire commissioner, pointed to this anomaly and noted, “I’m not sure the fire insurance savings would be enjoyed by Larchmont residents.”
Mr. Mandell concluded, “The study succeeds in proving one of its goals – that a consolidated effort could significantly improve service provided to the communities in the study group. But without knowing the cost to our tax payers, I must reserve judgment.”
Local Leaders: Cautious, Critical
Mayor Liz Feld said she “appreciated all the hard work” but it was premature to comment on the study without additional information on service and tax implications. Also, while recognizing that the study proposes consolidation of some existing districts, she was ”notionally” opposed to the creation of “new districts that create another level of government with bonding and taxing authority.”
Mamaroneck Town Supervisor Valerie O’Keeffe, on the other hand, blasted the study. “I see this as an anti-volunteer department effort because it is limited to places that have a paid chief, ” she said. ”This came from the paid fire chiefs, and we don’t have a paid chief.”
(The Westchester Career Fire Chiefs sponsored the study with funds obtained from the New York State Legislature. Larchmont only became part of the study after it hired a paid chief in 2006. Mamaroneck Town was not part of the study, nor was Mamaroneck Village, which has only volunteer firefighters.)
The impact of consolidation on volunteer firefighters is among the subjects Mayor Feld said needs more analysis.