New Castle Fire District No. 1 commissioners continue to search for a date to hold a King Street firehouse expansion referendum and they must decide whether to hold in-person voting or an election with only absentee ballots.
Erik Nicolaysen, chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners, said the district wants to schedule the vote for this year. At least two months would be needed from the time that the board sets the date until the vote is held because the commissioners plan on sending material to district residents and hold virtual public information sessions, he said. The information sessions could possibly have a limited number of residents attend.
The board has yet to publicly release the approximate price tag for the expansion, which would include a three-bay addition. The full scope of the project and the cost should be known within two weeks after the contractor’s estimates have been totaled, Nicolaysen said.
Although it is unclear how many fire district taxpayers are impacted by the ongoing economic shutdown, the cost of the desperately-needed expansion continues to escalate, Nicolaysen said.
“If we put it off for another year, I’m sure we’re going to be look at another 5 or 6 percent increase,” he said. “It’s a balancing act no matter how you look at it.”
Last week, the board briefly considered whether a vote should be held during or after the summer and how voting should be conducted. Earlier this year, the Town of New Castle had extended an offer to the fire district to use Town Hall to hold the vote.
District Secretary Judi Weintraub said it might be wise to used absentee ballots since most election inspectors are older people, many of whom are likely hesitant to interact with the public as the pandemic continues to keep Westchester shut down. She did acknowledge that it would be more labor intensive.
“That would be problematic to get somebody to sit at these tables all day, especially because this could generate a large amount of people coming in,” Weintraub said.
Although the school board election and budget vote next month will be done exclusively through a mailed absentee ballot, Commissioner Terence Hoey said he wants the board to receive an opinion from the board’s counsel and the state before considering the same system.
Nicolaysen responded that it is his understanding that it’s the district’s option whether to have in-person or paper ballots mailed to the voters.
He estimated that the district would need at least 60 to adequately transmit information to the public about the scope of the project, the need for the work and cost. As a result, the earliest the referendum could be held is before the end of July.
Information could be sent to residents via mail and e-mail as well as scheduling an informational session that includes the project engineer, which could be presented through a Zoom call and/or broadcast over the New Castle Media Center. The presentation could be made with limited public attendance and proper social distancing could also be considered, Nicolaysen said.
If the district went to paper ballots that would be mailed to voters, the proposition could be held during the summer instead of waiting until the fall, even if a certain percentage of residents are out of town, he said.
“I think it would be a relatively minor problem,” he said. “We can send the voting ballots where they want.”
Resident Lynne Lambert urged the commissioners to consider putting off a vote until 2021 because many residents could be unable to handle a tax hike.
“I really think that the economics are so challenged right now that the timing is bad if you’re trying to do it this year,” Lambert said.
The new wing would be attached to the current firehouse and use the former Chappaqua Animal Hospital parcel that was acquired with the passage of a $2.6 million February 2017 referendum. That vote was held following the previous year’s defeat of a more than $12 million proposition.
The district has reached an agreement with the Town of Mount Pleasant on what that town’s residents who live in the district will contribute toward the project, Nicolaysen said.