Suffolk County, New York is home to 228 fire departments, serving a population of 1,497,595 people across an area of 912 square miles. This means that there is one fire department for every 6,568 people and one fire department for every 3 square miles. In the state of New York, there are 902 independent fire districts, each with a five-member board of fire commissioners elected by the public. Fire districts are public corporations created by a city or towns in accordance with Municipal Law. According to the Constitution of the State of New York, these districts are autonomous and independent municipal entities.
Fire district commissioners have the power to adopt rules and regulations that govern all fire departments and companies that provide fire protection services to residents and district properties. They also create and approve their own budgets, which are then presented to cities and counties for tax collection purposes. Unfortunately, few taxpayers attend fire district board meetings to comment on budget decisions. This means that the primary control over these decisions is through the selection of commissioners in the fire district elections. These elections are held during the winter months when inclement weather is most likely to deter voters.
They are limited to a few hours of voting in limited places on a single day, usually during prime time for families. In addition, fire district elections generally do not allow absentee voting, which means that older voters or people with physical disabilities cannot participate. Under Article 11, §175-a, once voters approve a proposal, fire districts may adopt additional voter registration requirements. In districts that elect (rather than nominate) their treasurer, the annual election may also include the election of a fire district treasurer. The five-year terms of fire district commissioners are staggered so that voters select a commissioner in each annual election, barring resignations and vacancies. Local government experts have long recognized that low participation rates in these elections are due to practical concerns about the way they are conducted. It is important for taxpayers to be aware of what is at stake in these elections and how they can make their voices heard.
Some cities and fire districts regularly publish and archive the results of the fire district elections on their websites. This publication provides an overview of fire district elections, when and where they are held, and what is at stake.