Lack of money shuts down volunteer fire department

The chief said they drained their reserves and savings for expenses such as maintaining the building and vehicles and keeping rescue equipment up to code

By Melissa Klaric
The Herald

SOUTH PYMATUNING TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Lack of money caused the South Pymatuning Township fire department to close its doors Wednesday night, leaving residents to rely on neighboring fire departments in an emergency.

"We voted not to give them a four-year contract. They decided to shut down," said township Supervisor Brian Geisel. "The fire department chose to close and not respond to calls."

Fire Chief Mark Hoffman said the volunteer department is broke. It has drained its reserves and vested savings, he said, for general expenses such as maintaining the building and vehicles and keeping fire and water rescue equipment up to state code.

The volunteers have never been under contract with the township since the department's inception in 1950, Hoffman said, adding lack of a contract precludes the department from receiving government grants.

The department proposed a four-year pact but supervisors on Wednesday rejected it in a 2-to-1 vote, with Geisel and Roy Masotto dissenting and Rose Lyons in favor. Supervisors offered a two-year contract instead, according to both Geisel and Hoffman.

"There was pressure from the fire department, and township residents wanted us to give the department money without raising taxes, and that's impossible," Geisel said.

Both contract proposals call for the township to double the department's funding to almost $30,000 in 2015, with an additional $15,000 each following year. That would cost the average homeowner nearly $15 more in property taxes in 2015, Hoffman said.

But if the department remains closed, residents could still take a hit to their pocketbooks. If supervisors contract with a neighboring department for fire services, township homes more than five miles away will most likely see a considerable increase in insurance rates or no coverage at all, according to Stan Alfredo, an insurance agent in Sharpsville.

That was confirmed by "A resident at (the township's) March meeting (who) said if there would be no fire department in the township, his rates would go up $320 per year. People were shocked," Hoffman said, noting that the resident "did his homework" by contacting his insurance company for the information.

In addition to the township's contribution, Hoffman said the department receives donations -- $10,000 from the township in 2014 -- and has had various fundraisers that net roughly $8,500 to $14,500 every year. The department has a treasurer and requires two signatures on checks, Hoffman said.

Volunteers responded to 300 calls in 2014. The department covers 2,500 residents over 35 square miles from the Ohio line to state Route 18 and from Patagonia to West Salem Township.

"Quite a chunk of land" is in Shenango Lake, Hoffman said.

All the firefighters, including the chief, are volunteers.

Frank A. Jannetti Jr., Mercer County director of public safety, said township supervisors have not designated emergency responders in the absence of the volunteer fire department.

"My only responsibility is to know who to send in the event of an emergency," Jannetti said, adding that Mercer County 911 will call on neighboring departments for now, but he needs an answer from South Pymatuning officials as soon as possible.

Geisel said the supervisors will not meet until after the firefighters meet in a a closed session Monday where they will vote on the township's counter offer of a two-year contract. That could determine whether the fire department will be in service on Tuesday.

"Surrounding fire companies have responsibilities to their municipalities," Jannetti said. "If this agency ceases to respond to call, that creates an issue."


(c)2015 The Herald (Sharon,Pa)

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