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Exploring Solutions to the Fire District's Dilemma

One lawmaker says the ultimate answer would require state legislation.

As the Stony Brook Fire District copes with the loss of much of its tax base, few short term solutions are likely to materialize.

Paul Degen, chairman of the Stony Brook Fire District's board of commissioners, said the ideal solution would be to arrange for Stony Brook University to make payments in lieu of taxes, or PILOT payments, to the fire district.

But because Stony Brook is a state school, the solution would require state legislation to enable the university to provide payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT payments) – which is unlikely to happen at this point in time, according to state Assemb. Steve Englebright, D-Setauket. He said he agrees with Degen.

"It is a difficult time for the state right now to do a PILOT program, but I think that's what should happen," Englebright said. "I think it deserves to be talked about in order to set up the eventual reality of PILOT. At this particular moment in time it is a really difficult thing to imagine passing and surviving the veto pin."

Degen, Englebright and Ron DiBiase, president of the Civic Association of the Setaukets and Stony Brook, all agreed that the Stony Brook Fire District should have continued conversations with the university regarding the issue. But DiBiase said another possible recourse would be to consolidate the Stony Brook and Setauket fire districts.

This would be a "quasi-detriment" to the people of Setauket, he said, while amounting to a "tremendous benefit" to the people of Stony Brook because the latter's district would share in Setauket's larger tax base. This would also leave both century-old fire departments intact, which he said is important because of the pride each has in its legacy. "You don't want to diminish that," DiBiase said.

Degen disagreed with the idea of consolidating the Stony Brook and Setauket fire districts because of the geographical layouts of both districts.

"At this point, we would still have the need for the two fire houses and the equipment or the response time would increase dramatically with a loss of service," Degen said.

Stony Brook University has tried to reduce its reliance on the Stony Brook Fire Department, according to university spokeswoman Lauren Sheprow. Solutions on the university's end have included the introduction of round-the-clock fire marshals in 2007. She also said the university is willing to examine how other universities have handled similar issues.

Short term solutions, such as the intermunicipal agreement the Stony Brook Fire District recently entered into with Centereach Fire District, may provide some relief. Under that agreement, the Centereach Fire District mechanics will service Stony Brook's trucks and equipment at a rate cheaper than the alternative of contracting an outside company to make repairs.

"Rather then replace our district mechanic, we have an agreement that utilizes their mechanics and saves the tax payers thousands while assisting both fire districts," Degen said. "They have been doing a wonderful job for us and this is what consolidation really should be about at this point in time."

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