Saturday, July 16, 2011

Is There Reason for Hope in Fairview?

 I recently received an email from a veteran of many years of service to the Fairview Fire District, someone whose knowledge and wisdom I respect very highly.  Reflecting on Fairview's dire situation, this veteran lamented the fact that nothing seems to change, despite years and years of effort on the part of many creative people.  “There are still far too many people who have egos, power trips, political aspirations ... for anything to change.”  “... those who should be working together as a team have turned on each other looking for ...  a scapegoat to blame for all of the troubles in the world of Fairview and beyond.”

As an engineer by training, I'm essentially a professional pessimist.  But you don't need to be cynical to understand that Fairview's difficult situation in the past has now become a crisis.  Still, I've found a few reasons to hope that Fairview's problems can be alleviated.  All these reasons are new, appearing within the last three years:
  1. A relatively small group of committed people, beginning in 2008, was able to completely transform Fairview's board of fire commissioners by popular vote.  To me, this is an inspiring story of the way democracy is supposed to work.  The new board is not perfect by a long shot, but in my view, it's a big improvement over the old guard.  Private citizens have far greater access to this board than to the old one.
  2. William Steinhaus, Dutchess County Executive for the last twenty years, will end his reign in half a year.  Steinhaus has not shown interest in the plight of Fairview and other fire districts. Steinhaus' likely successor, Marc Molinaro, has already been making the correct noises regarding helping the fire districts, including looking at a consolidated county-wide system.
  3. As New York State Attorney General, Andrew Cuomo successfully fought for a New N.Y. Government Reorganization and Citizen Empowerment Act making it practical for local governments such as fire districts to consolidate.  This significant new option allows fire services to be provided more efficiently.  A few fire districts in other counties are already taking advantage of this new law.
  4. As Governor, Cuomo successfully fought for a two percent property tax cap law.  If nothing else, this controversial law will prevent unbounded increases in property taxes.
  5. As I've come to understand what Fairview's firefighters really do (see my Fairview Fire Tax Dollars at Work), it's changed my view somewhat of our high fire taxes:  We pay a lot, but we get a lot too, that others who pay less don't get.  I know this is little comfort to those on a tight budget, that is, to most people.  Perhaps part of the solution to Fairview's high fire tax is to educate people better about what they're getting for their money.  As I see it, Fairview's firefighters union has been doing that for a long time, but Fairview's fire commissioners, not so much.
  6. Two of the big three fire districts of Dutchess County, Arlington and LaGrange (the third is Fairview), have seen their tax rates increase dramatically in each of the last three years.  This fact can only increase the pressure for fire district consolidation in Dutchess County.
  7. Fairview's crisis might still be eased within Fairview.  Fairview's tax exempt institutions may now want to contribute significant Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOTs) in their own self interest, to avoid incurring increased insurance costs and decreased safety.
As I see it, the fact that most politicians have egos, power trips, political aspirations, and scapegoats is not a new thing.  It's been with us since biblical times, probably since civilization began.  Probably since we've been human.  If and when the names and faces of all the politicians change, these facts of life won't change. The best form of government that humans have devised — democracy — is messy, and works imperfectly, as we know only too well.  Yet it does sometimes work, as items 1, 2, 3, and 4 show. 

The other major force in play is our economic system, in which people and institutions tend to act in their own self interest.  Such motives can be viewed as having caused Fairview's problem in the first place.  But as Items 5, 6, and 7 show, economic self-interest can also act in Fairview's favor.

With these seven reasons for hope, things should work out fine for Fairview.  Just kidding!  Nothing I've written above changes the fact that Fairview's situation is dire, and that dramatic actions must be taken for Fairview to avoid safety and/or financial disaster.  It's just that a number of significant political and economic paths for change are now becoming available, paths that weren't on the horizon just three years ago.