The Nassau County fire marshal’s office confirmed on Oct. 5 that a fire that ignited at Oceanside’s Sanitation District No. 7’s Mott Street headquarters on April 28 was set intentionally.
Responding to a Herald inquiry, Fire Marshal Chief Michael Uttaro said that the blaze, which damaged two district pickup trucks, was still under investigation, but had been officially classified as incendiary, meaning that it was purposely set, but was not arson, which requires malicious intent.
It took about 60 firefighters to extinguish the blaze. In the aftermath, Oceanside Fire Chief Kevin Klein said that because the trucks had not been used for roughly 12 hours before the incident, he had reason to believe the fire was suspicious. The fire marshal’s office then took over the investigation.
“It’s a mystery, and it kind of reads like a criminal novel,” said current sanitation board of commissioners Chairman John Mannone. “Vehicles don’t just spontaneously combust after sitting there.”
“The district is riddled with cameras,” he added, “and that happened to be one of the only spots that doesn’t have camera coverage. Part of the speculation was that whoever set the fire was someone who knew where the cameras were.”
Mannone said the trucks were covered by insurance, but that the district’s deductible for the damage had not yet been determined.
Local 553 union shop steward Artie Schnabel said after an Oct. 5 board of commissioners meeting that no sanitation workers were scheduled to be at headquarters when the fire broke out. “None of my guys were here at the time,” he recalled.
Ed Scharfberg, who was board of commissioners chairman at the time of the fire, said he would not comment on an ongoing investigation.
The blaze happened during the lead-up to an acrimonious June 15 board of commissioners election, in which an anonymous post on the Oceanside Taxpayer Concerns Facebook page accused Scharfberg of involvement in a motion to hire H2M Architects — a contracting firm for which he works — to design a parking lot behind the district’s Mott Street headquarters.
The May 12 post appeared to show the minutes of a 2015 meeting — which stated that Scharfberg offered a motion to retain H2M’s services — and called on him to step down.
Scharfberg later told the Herald that he should have recused himself from the 2015 vote, but insisted that he never benefited from the contract. “I welcome the D.A.’s office or state comptroller to personally investigate my finances,” he said.
Also, the fire came after a March 13 dismissal by a Westchester County judge of a class-action lawsuit brought against current and former board members.
The suit alleged that former commissioners Joseph Cibellis and Florence Mensch, as well as current board member Tom Lanning, did not do enough to recoup more than $800,000 in what a 2014 state comptroller’s audit report identified as illegal deferred retirement payments to former district supervisors Michael Scarlata and his son Charles.
In his decision, the judge described the legal effort as “laudable,” but decided he could not let the case proceed because of a question about the legal definition of a municipal corporation. Former Oceanside sanitation workers Joseph Samoles and Dennis Rockefeller originally filed the suit in November 2015.
The fire also occurred amid sanitation district workers’ complaints about depressed wages. According to 2016 public payroll figures, District 7 employees were paid on average nearly $26,000 less than those in neighboring districts. The previous board set those wages in a five-year contract scheduled to expire in 2018.
Solving the mystery of the fire might take a while. “Sometimes these investigations last a long time,” Uttaro acknowledged. The Herald will provide an update when more information becomes available.