April 05, 2006

Flanders District Relief Delayed

County Executive Steve Levy's reps said he wants to help. Southampton Town Supervisor Skip Heaney wants to help. Legislator Jay Schneiderman wants to help. And the county legislature's public safety committee? Not so much.

An initiative geared towards helping to defray the burden for the Flanders Northampton Ambulance Company was tabled in committee last week. Committee Chair Vivian Viloria Fisher (D-East Setauket) expressed reservations about the plan, offering that it could set a bad precedent.

The plan calls for reimbursing ambulance companies that make calls to county facilities in districts where the county owns more than 50% of the taxable property. In the Flanders Northampton district, Suffolk owns an estimated 80% of the land, resulting in a situation Heaney described as 16% of the property owners paying for 100% of the taxes.

The Riverhead county center is situated within the district, as is the jail. A quarter of the district's annual $300,000 budget is spent on servicing both. Heaney has suggested redrawing the lines around the district to eliminate the county center. The move would force Suffolk to contract with both the Flanders Northampton and Riverhead ambulance corps for service.

During debate of the bill last week, Schneiderman spoke of the threat of carving the county center out of the district. "Then there'd be no one to pick you up if you get sick," he said. Viloria Fisher cautioned against "opening up a hornet's nest." Many legislators have districts where there are "disproportionate burdens" created by government holdings that don't pay into fire and ambulance districts, she pointed out. In her district, Stony Brook University places a "tremendous burden" on emergency services.

There's a difference, though. Stony Brook is a state, not county holding. Joe Williams, Suffolk's Commissioner of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Services said he was aware of no other district with as much publicly- owned county property as Flanders Northampton.

Ben Zwirn, Levy's liaison to the legislature allowed the county executive is also concerned about setting a precedent. He wants to check to see if the bill may affect any other jurisdictions. However, there's a sense that the problem is specific only to Flanders. Zwirn asked for the measure to be tabled until representatives from the executive branch can meet with district officials "to see if any accommodations can be made."

Coincidentally, Viloria Fisher is rumored to be running this fall for County Clerk on the Democratic ticket. If she's successful, she'd work out of offices in the district.

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