“You’re not shutting our firehouse down!”
That was the sentiment of members of the Sassamansville Fire Company, as well as many residents from the northern area of New Hanover Township, at a standing-room-only meeting of the township supervisors Sept. 12.
New Hanover and Sassamansville fire company officials met with township officials last Thursday and were presented with two separate resolutions to review in preparation of a possible vote by supervisors at Monday night’s meeting. The resolutions would combine the command and administration functions of the two departments into one “New Hanover Fire Company” structure.
Some residents feared the two departments would be dissolved and replaced with a township-operated department with paid staff. That scenario led residents to voice concerns about a township tax hike to pay for those services.
Supervisors, however, quickly quelled those fears by firmly stating that the board never had, nor do they now have, any plans to shut any company down or hire anyone for a paid fire service position.
Chairman Martin Dyas said the board is, though, considering initiating a separate entity to oversee the operations and the distribution of taxpayer funds from the “fire tax” while keeping both firehouses.
During the course of the discussions, several township officials kept reminding residents that township officials will have nothing to do with operating the fire department. Part of the process they are considering would include the establishing of one fire chief to command both stations and two separate station heads who report to the chief.
The supervisors also said that a committee from both stations should be formed to handle electing a chief, along with the distribution of any funding.
Voting in committee may be an issue as New Hanover has approximately 45 members, while Sassamansville has about 25. While the New Hanover members were reported to be in agreement with the arrangement, Sassamansville members and residents in attendance were not.
The thought of losing that department’s identity and history were unacceptable to those who spoke to the board.
John Bieleski, of N. Charlotte Street, gave a brief history surrounding the township’s departments, noting Sassamansville’s accomplished past.
Charlotte and Russ Purnell, who reside on Layfield Road, also protested publicly.
“My father was the first president of Sassamansville,” stated Charlotte Purnell. “We’re lifelong residents of this town.”
Russ Purnell later questioned the supervisors asking, “What are you trying to accomplish?”
Lon Brinkman, current Sassamansville fire police captain, spoke of the “pride, tradition, and history of the department—something the study does not show,” to which he received a round of applause.
Former members of the Pottstown Fire Department, Emanuel O’Toole, current fire lieutenant of Sassamansville, and William Pasqueal, of Hausman Road, told supervisors their former department underwent similar changes and they left as a result.
Both went on to say that there were three different studies done for that department—two of them by the same contractor used by New Hanover for their study—and all three were thrown out.
“They don’t work. You can’t force volunteers to do anything. You can ask them, plead with them, even beg them—but you can’t force them. We don’t get paid for doing the same thing paid firefighters do,” Pasqueal said.
The resolutions to consolidate the departments came as a result of a township fire study, undertaken in 2010 by a representative of the Volunteer Firemen’s Insurance Service of York. Their findings included a number of changes to improve emergency service to residents, including combining the two fire companies.
At the time, Sassamansville officials felt there was an inadequacy in township funding as they received only 25 percent of the township’s fire tax while New Hanover Fire Company received 75 percent.
The final copy of the voluminous report, received in March 2011, concluded that the best way to provide efficient fire protection for the township was to either merge or dissolve the two separate departments in favor of a larger, more centralized department. Officials said that the township’s fire advisory board reported that both fire chiefs were in agreement with the study’s conclusion.
Township officials said they also had to contend with a report from the state Auditor General’s office chronicling alleged misuse and misappropriation of state-distributed Volunteer Firefighters Relief Association funds. The association is funded by out-of-state insurance companies who pay a premium to sell policies to Pennsylvania customers. The funds are distributed to local fire companies but come with a strict set of guidelines for their permitted use.
Many of Sassamansville’s discrepancies were for using the funds for general fire-company related purchases instead of those which fall under the strict association guidelines.
That report dates back more than three years – an issue that is not uncommon for the state association.
Robert Gross of Hoffmansville Road, who is a current treasurer for Sassamansville, informed the supervisors that all of the information from the auditor general’s report was incorrect and outdated.
Gross, along with other members from the department, insisted that all of the inaccuracies were already corrected before the township received that report. No current or more recent reports were available from the Auditor General’s office.
“All that happened under another group of people, almost all of who are no longer with the company,” he said.
Gross went on to say that Sassamansville has no outstanding debts on its equipment and apparatus, and he demanded that the township audit the department’s books to prove it. The board accepted Gross’s request to do a financial audit of the department.
After nearly two hours of public comment, Dyas called for a vote on any of the two resolutions. Vice Chairman Douglas Muller said, while he agreed there should be one chief overseeing the operations, had concerns about the imbalance between the two department’s memberships, which could result in slanted voting.
He said he could not vote on any resolution until that aspect was corrected.
Supervisor Andrew Kelly was in agreement with Muller, also stating he could not vote until a solution could be found for the imbalance.
Dyas said he wasn’t ready to cast a vote either.
The issue was tabled for further review and no action was taken by the supervisors.