Opinion 2001 - 5


This opinion represents the views of the Office of the State Comptroller at the time it was rendered. The opinion may no longer represent those views if, among other things, there have been subsequent court cases or statutory amendments that bear on the issues discussed in the opinion.

FIRE DISTRICTS -- Appropriations and Expenditures (authority to offer rewards) -- Powers and Duties (authority to offer rewards)

TOWN LAW 176(31); GENERAL MUNICIPAL LAW 91(1): A fire district may offer a reward of up to $1,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of individuals for felonies and misdemeanors directly connected to vandalism or theft of fire district property. A fire district, however, may not offer rewards in connection with other matters. 1982 Opns St Comp No. 82-242, p 302 is superseded to the extent inconsistent.

You ask whether a fire district may offer a reward for information leading to the conviction of the persons responsible for an "incident" at a local high school at which a member of the fire district fire department was injured requiring emergency room treatment.

Fire districts are established primarily for the purpose of providing fire protection and responding to certain other types of emergencies (see Town Law 176[1], [22]; General Municipal Law 209, 209-b; Volunteer Firefighters' Benefit Law 5[1]; 2000 Opns St Comp No. 2000-20, p 53; 1992 Opns St Comp No. 92-41, p 105; 1986 Opns St Comp No. 86-34, p 55). In furtherance of these purposes, fire districts have only those powers expressly granted by statute or necessarily implied therefrom (Town Law 176[21]; Opn No. 2000-20, supra; 1993 Opns St Comp No. 93-24, p 42; Opn Nos. 92-4, p 9 and 92-41, supra; see also 1982 Opns St Comp No. 82-242, p 302; 1981 Opns St Comp No. 81-196, p 209; 17 Opns St Comp, 1961, p 252; cf. Wells v Town of Salina, 119 NY 280).

Section 176(31) of the Town Law provides that the board of fire commissioners of a fire district:

[m]ay offer monetary rewards, in sums not to exceed one thousand dollars, to individuals for information leading to the arrest and conviction of any person or persons for felonies and misdemeanors directly connected to vandalism or theft of district property. Such rewards may be offered on any conditions the board may determine, subject to whatever qualifications it may deem appropriate.

Thus, a board of fire commissioners has express statutory authority to offer rewards of up to $1,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of individuals for felonies and misdemeanors directly connected to vandalism or theft of fire district property. Payment of such a reward is not subject to a fire district's spending limit (see Town Law 176[18][14]). Neither section 176(31), nor any other statute of which we are aware, however, expressly authorizes a fire district to offer rewards in connection with other matters, such as incidents involving injury to fire district personnel.

In this regard, we note that section 91(1) of the General Municipal Law authorizes the governing board of any "municipal corporation" to offer rewards of not more than $1,000 for information leading to the detection, arrest and conviction of individuals guilty of any felony or misdemeanor. The provisions of section 91(1), however, do not apply to fire districts (see General Municipal Law 2; 1982 Opns St Comp No. 82-242, p 302; cf. 1981 Opns St Comp No. 81-254, p 272).

As to a fire district's implied authority to provide rewards, we note that in Opn No. 82-242, supra, we discussed whether a fire district has implied authority to offer a reward for information leading to the apprehension, arrest and conviction of a person responsible for a suspected arson. We indicated that a fire district may have implied authority to offer such rewards in light of its express power with respect to fire prevention and safety, and its power under section 204-d of the General Municipal Law to determine the cause of each fire it has been called to suppress. We also concluded, however, that the best course of action for fire district officials may be to discuss with town officials the possibility of the town offering the reward pursuant to General Municipal Law 91.

The year after Opn No. 82-242, supra, was rendered, section 176(31) of the Town Law was enacted by chapter 763 of the Laws of 1983. Memoranda in the Governor's bill jacket for this measure indicate that the purpose of the legislation was to provide authority for fire districts to offer rewards in connection with vandalism or theft of fire district property (see, e.g., 1983 Legislative Annual, p 329; Memorandum to the Governor of the Department of State for S. 1771 of 1983, July 26, 1983; Memorandum to the Governor of the Association of Towns for S. 1771 of 1983, July 15, 1983). It is apparent that the enactment of this provision was deemed necessary to overcome a lack of implied authority for fire districts to offer rewards. In view of this sequence of events and the purpose of chapter 763, we now believe it is clear that fire districts lack authority to offer rewards except as provided in Town Law 176(31). We hereby supersede Opn No. 82-242, supra, to the extent that it may be read as reaching a contrary conclusion.

Accordingly, it is our opinion that a fire district may offer a reward of up to $1,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of individuals for felonies and misdemeanors directly connected to vandalism or theft of fire district property. It is also our opinion, however, that a fire district may not offer rewards in connection with other matters.

May 15, 2001
Lynn Ball, Secretary/Treasurer
Campbell Fire District #1