By Greg Serio, CAFDA Legal Counsel
It’s barely November, but it’s never too early to start thinking about your fire district’s organizational meeting coming up in January. Sure, we are barely out of the budget process and we have elections yet to go and finishing up the business of the current year will be on the collective minds of commissioners right through the end of the year. The organizational meeting, though, will set the tone for an entire year, and it is important to use it effectively.
The first official meeting of the district’s year is not just a look-forward exercise; it is also the opportunity to look back on the previous year, examining what went well, what did not go so well, and what needs to be clarified, verified or modified. The organizational meeting can also be that time…and maybe the only time…to do those things that perhaps should be done as part of the district’s obligations to its taxpayers, its firefighters and itself.
Some districts already take the organizational meeting to meticulously review the district’s policies, set the tone for the year to come and assiduously establish the expectations for the commissioners and those who serve or may serve the district as officers, including the treasurer, secretary and chiefs. There are also specific acts that the board must take in the days and weeks leading up to and during the organizational meeting. Others take the organizational meeting as a perfunctory exercise, without delving particularly deeply into the operations and affairs of the district, either in retrospect or prospectively. For those in the latter category especially, now is the time to rethink the approach to this important gathering.
Today and over the next several weeks, this column will delve into some those things district commissioners may want to consider for the 2024 organizational meeting agenda no matter how the first meeting of the year has been handled in years past. Among the issues we will discuss are: appointment of chief officers; appointing and bonding of district treasurers; appointment of the official firefighting and rescue force to provide service on behalf of the district; establishing of the annual district calendar; compliance with the cancer insurance and reporting requirements, review of policies, and other critical (read that as either statutorily-required or best business practices) steps for the board to take to get 2024 off on the right foot.
BEFORE THE YEAR STARTS
A close reading of the law requires a couple of things to be done prior to the start of the year, much less before the scheduled organizational meeting.
- Cancer Insurance: State law, General Municipal Law section 205-cc and 9 NYCRR 210 of the regulations of the Office of Fire Prevention and Control/Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, requires that by January 1, 2019 and annually thereafter each fire district must have in place cancer insurance on its eligible members, or a commitment to cover cancer care as an alternative to insurance. As most insurance coverages are written on a 12-month basis, the likelihood for many districts is that this coverage comes up for renewal on January 1 (or more precisely, December 31 of the coverage year, as does the district commitment in lieu of the coverage. It is imperative that the board of fire commissioners make certain no later than its final meeting in December that the insurance for cancer risks is renewed or place with a new insurer for effect on January 1st of the next year. The fire district also must file an attestation of such coverage, by whichever means it is provided, to OFPC no later than January 1, including a copy of the declarations page of the insurance policy or the attestation of self-insurance by the fire district. The organizational meeting is the first opportunity for the board to confirm that the cancer coverage has, in fact, been placed. More information about the cancer program, including other filing requirements, may be found at the following website address: Volunteer Firefighter Enhanced Cancer Disability Benefit Program | Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services (ny.gov). A letter that all fire districts should have received from the Division in mid-October details all the various filing requirements of the program: vfecdb_0.pdf (ny.gov)
- Treasurer Bond: Town Law section 176 states that:
“Such board of fire commissioners…shall require the fire district treasurer, before entering upon the duties of his office, to give an official undertaking, conditioned for the faithful performance of his duties and that he will well and truly keep, pay over and account for all moneys and property belonging to the fire district and coming into his hands as such treasurer, in such form, in such sum and with such sureties as the board of fire commissioners shall direct and approve and such approval shall be indicated upon such undertaking, and when approved such undertaking shall be filed in the office of the town clerk of the town in which such fire district is located. If such district is situated in more than one town, a duplicate original of such undertaking, approved by the board of fire commissioners, shall be filed in the office of the town clerk of each town in which such district is located. The fire district commissioners may by resolution determine that such undertaking shall be executed by a surety company authorized to transact business in the state of New York and that the expense thereof shall be a charge on the fire district.
Many fire districts, with the encouragement of some district insurance advisors, believe that this obligation of the treasurer is satisfied through the insurance policy of the fire district. A straightforward reading of the statute, together with the legislative history of this section of law, would suggest otherwise. In addition to clearly putting forth the requirement being on the treasurer to provide the surety, it, importantly, says that the undertaking needs to be secured “before entering upon the duties of his (or her) office.” This would expect the undertaking to be secured prior to or as of January 1. The conditions of the surety should be established by the board sufficiently prior to January 1 to allow the treasurer or proposed treasurer to secure the undertaking in a timely manner.
At the organizational meeting, the board should be sure to make certain that the undertaking has been secured before it allows the treasurer to commence management of any taxpayer funds. Further, the meeting should document when the treasurer’s bond was or will be filed with the town clerk. The undertaking is considered part of the treasurer’s oath of office and must be filed with the town clerk within thirty days of taking office. Filing just the oath without the undertaking will obviate the oath and the position will be considered vacated by operation of law (meaning, no one has to do anything, including the board, to effectuate the vacancy).
- Notice of the Organizational Meeting: This meeting is no different than any other meeting of the board of fire commissioners. Therefore, it is required to be noticed in the same manner as the other, regularly scheduled meetings of the board. Website and station sign/front door postings, along with the other public notice provisions need to be followed. In the crush of the end-of-year business (like those things above) the notice for the organizational meeting in the following year (which may not even involve some of the people around the table at the December meeting) can get lost or ignored. The board must make certain that the district secretary has secured the proper notice.