Ray RaimundiOct 5, 2017, 5:55 pmOct 6, 2017, 12:35 pm

Money to burn: How the law allows fire officials to spend taxpayer money any way they like

Questions being raised on millions of dollars are being used

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The Foreign Fire Insurance Premium tax is paid by homeowners to help aid both paid and volunteer firefighters. But now, new questions are being asked about how fire departments across the state use those funds.

Journal News tax watch columnist David McKay Wilson has been investigating the origin of tax for months and he says he has seen the money used by fire departments, fire districts and fire department benevolent associations for all sorts of reasons.

“There were some who were spending it on fixing up the firehouses and buying firefighting gear. And then others were just spending it on parties,” David Wilson said.

The tax has generated some $60 million across the state of New York since it started. Currently, more than $1 million is in the coffers of departments and associations in Westchester alone.

"This law was put on the books over 100 years ago and times back when there weren't disability and worker compensation laws. Over the years, it's just been there," Wilson said.

And now there are new revelations about how Westchester fire departments are using that money.

According to state law, proceeds may be used for any purpose members of the fire department determine to be for the benefit of the department or company as a whole. But it's what these departments deem as "a benefit" that has sparked outrage. Especially after it was discovered that engine companies and benevolent associations across New York used thousands of dollars on lavish dinner events, the opera, and sports excursions at MetLife Stadium and Madison Square Garden.

"These are, in my opinion, gross abuses of taxpayer dollars," Wilson said.

And concern over the Foreign Fire Insurance Premium Tax has been apparent in the city of Yonkers where Mayor Mike Spano wrote a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo, asking that he urge the attorney general and the state comptroller to conduct "a full forensic audit", a "complete itemization of expenditures" and a "complete investigation to be made public."

According to a city law from 1912, the FFIP money was only supposed to aid disabled and indigent firefighters.

"What I am saying, it was not consistent with the law. And you know, care of indigent firefighters does not include having parties and dinner dances," Mayor Spano said.

The heat was on the Yonkers Fire Department two years ago when the New York State Comptroller's Office conducted an audit of a mutual aid association that was run by the local firefighters' union.

Yonkers Fire Union President Barry McGoey acknowledges the union was not aware of the stipulations of the spending until the union's mutual aid association was audited in 2015.

"We've been very diligent in how we use this money," McGoey said.

Those documents revealed that, two years ago, the association had more than half a million dollars in expenditures and had a balance over $1.7 million from the tax fund.

"This money was not squandered, it was not wasted. As I said, we have millions of dollars of fund balance because we've been so diligent and careful of how we spent this money," McGoey said.
The controversy has also spawned internal fighting in Eastchester where a lawsuit has been filed by the Eastchester Fire District against the Eastchester Volunteer Officers Association after the district became concerned that "the VOA received or utilized 1.8 percent of fund monies improperly, harming the district and public at large."

"The fire district believes there's much more money there and they believe the public has a right to know just where this public money is," Wilson said.

The Yonkers Fire Union is awaiting the findings of an audit conducted by the state comptroller's office two years ago. Those results are expected to be released by year's end.

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