Court fight brews over firefighter, ambulance funding in Pa. county

Officials will be asked to resolve a dispute over how thousands of dollars in state funds are distributed to support the volunteer fire and EMS personnel

By David Singleton
The Times-Tribune

LACKAWANNA COUNTY, Pa. — Lackawanna County Court will be asked to resolve a dispute over how Jefferson Twp. distributes thousands of dollars in state funds annually to support the activities of volunteer fire and ambulance personnel.

For more than a decade, township supervisors have split money received through the state auditor general’s office evenly between the relief associations of the Jefferson Twp. Volunteer Fire Company and the Jefferson Twp. Volunteer Ambulance Association.

The ambulance relief association contends in a complaint filed against the board of supervisors this month in county court that the township now plans to depart from that practice and give all the money to the fire department.

Saying the change would cause it a severe hardship, the ambulance relief association wants the court to order the supervisors to adhere to past practice and distribute the funds equally.

A hearing on the request was postponed Monday before Judge James Gibbons and is expected to be rescheduled for next month. In the meantime, Gibbons ordered the funds frozen.

“The issue comes down to whether or not the Board of Supervisors for Jefferson Twp. recognizes an affiliation between the ambulance relief association and the volunteer fire department,” said attorney James Mulligan, who represents the ambulance relief association. “I don’t know how they are going to say there is not.”

The association has worked with the department since around 1977, and responds to every fire call answered by the department, with ambulance personnel providing medical care as needed to firefighters and others at the scene, he said.

In addition, past boards of supervisors have recognized the affiliation by giving the relief association a share of the state money since at least 2007, Mulligan said.

“There’s the kicker,” he said. “The past practice has always been to split it evenly.”

According to the auditor general’s office, the state aid in question is allocated each year to local municipalities for disbursement to 2,000 volunteer firefighter relief associations to help pay for training, equipment and insurance, as well as death benefits for volunteer firefighters.

The revenue comes from a 2 percent tax on premiums paid for casualty and fire insurance sold in the commonwealth by out-of-state insurance companies.

The total allocation to Jefferson Twp. generally has ranged between $20,000 and $25,000 annually since 2012, state records show.

Under state law, the recipient municipality has sole discretion in distributing the funds to any relief association serving that municipality.

Efforts to reach township solicitor Anthony Magnotta were unsuccessful.

The fire company relief association, which filed a petition to intervene in the case last week, asked the court to dismiss the complaint against the township.

Citing a 2017 report by the auditor general’s office, it argued the ambulance group is “not a bona fide relief association” and said it is trying to “establish rights to monies it legally does not and cannot have.”

Attorney Ernie Preate Jr., who represents the fire company relief association, said past practice in that instance is irrelevant.

“That doesn’t make it legal,” he said. “They’re still not entitled to it.”

Mulligan said he believes the move to strip the ambulance relief association of its allocation is related in part to the criminal case against a former ambulance association official.

In January 2018, county detectives accused Dorothy Dennis and her husband, Gerald, of stealing more than $68,000 from the ambulance organizations between 2013 and 2017, by forging the signatures of other association officers on checks.

Dorothy Dennis, 71, who was originally charged with 189 counts of forgery and theft, pleaded guilty in August to two counts of theft by unlawful taking and awaits sentencing. Charges against her husband were withdrawn.

Copyright 2019 The Times-Tribune

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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