Thursday, April 26, 2012

Joel Miller Combats Incestuously Elected Fire Commissioners

New York State Assemblyman Joel Miller has introduced legislation to provide for election of fire commissioners in the November general election. Under current New York State law, election of fire commissioners is held on the second Tuesday of December from 6:00 P.M. to 9:00 P.M., often at a different polling place than for the November general election. According to my recent conversation with Miller, he had intended to mention this initiative, called the Fire District Community Participation Act, in his April 22, 2012, Valley Views article in the Poughkeepsie Journal, but it was somehow omitted.

I heartily support Miller's initiative.

Why should fire districts be any different from other local governments?

Fire districts are just one more kind of local government in New York State, along with towns, cities, villages, and counties. I know of no reason why fire districts should live by different rules than any of these other local governments. In my recent post Joel Miller's Flawed Legislation for Fire District Budget Empowerment, I used this reasoning to oppose Miller's initiative for popular vote on fire district budgets. Here, the same reasoning argues in favor of Miller's initiative to make the fire commissioner election process the same as that in other local governments. My view in both cases upholds the basic principle that fire districts should live by the same rules as other local governments.

Current law for fire district elections distorts the voice of the people

Although fire commissioners — the representatives in our representative democracy — are nominally elected by popular vote, New York State law provides that this vote must take place on a different day from the general election, usually at greatly restricted hours, and often at a different polling place from the general election. The practical result is that most voters who bother to vote in fire district elections are those with a substantial personal stake in the outcome — firefighters, fire district officials, and their families. Miller, in the Valley View article, describes the resulting distortion of the people's voice in his usual restrained way as “incestuously elected commissioners.”

How low is voter turnout in fire district elections?

Voter turnout in fire district elections can be put into perspective by comparing it with that in the general election. An article in the New York Times of November 16, 2010, asserts that New York ranked dead last among all 50 states in voter turnout in that year's general election. How low was dead last? Only 32.1 percent of registered voters voted. But that was in the general election. In the Arlington Fire District's election of December 13, 2011, voter turnout was 0.44 percent, according to data in Miller's Valley View article. So in the general election, one out of three registered voters actually voted, but in the Arlington Fire District's election, it was one out of 230. Such a minuscule voter turnout is probably typical for fire district elections in New York State. It is clear that representative democracy is not working effectively for fire districts in New York State.

Abolish taxation with slanted representation

In decades past, fire districts were mostly volunteer, and their tax rates were correspondingly low. It could be argued that fire district “taxation with slanted representation” didn't matter too much in the past, because little money was at stake. Those days are long past. In many districts, volunteerism has dropped off dramatically, and been replaced by career firefighters. Like paid employees in any other field, career firefighters are expensive. Fire tax rates have soared. In some fire districts in Dutchess County, fire taxes are the second largest item of property tax, bested only by school taxes. There is no place in today's world for fire district taxation with slanted representation. Fire district taxation should have the same standard of representation as other local governments do. This means that fire commissioner elections should be part of the general election, as Miller proposes.

As always, I welcome your reasoned comments to this opinion piece.


  1. Miller should not speak in generalities. As I am sure you are aware Commissioner Elections in FFD have not been "incestuous" for several years. Perhaps a blog post specifcally rebutting Miller on this "flaw" is in order next.

  2. I agree that commissioner elections in the Fairview Fire District have not been incestuous for several years. But Fairview is anomalous in that respect, and in some others. As I see it, Miller's characterization of fire district elections is generally true.

  3. Why not blog about the anomalies? You do live in Fairview! Right?


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.