Thursday, August 19, 2021

W. Pottsgrove 'Suspends' West End Fire Co., Signs 18-Month Pact with Pottstown for Fire Protection

Photo by Evan Brandt
From left, commissioner Thomas Palladino, Charles Valentine, Township Manager Scott Hutt, Commissioners President Steve Miller, Township Solicitor Jamie Ottaviano and commissioners Mark Green and Pete LaRosa at Wednesday night's meeting.

The West Pottsgrove Commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday night to "suspend the township's relationship with the West End Fire Company" and enter into a  contract with Pottstown to provide fire protection services.

Prior to the vote, Township Manager Scott Hutt revealed in a prepared statement that a probe by the Attorney General's office has now expanded into an investigation of all fire company finances.

Also occurring Wednesday night was the announcement by Kathleen Scully that she is resigning as treasurer of the fire company, saying the leadership has been "sneaking around behind my back to get stuff."

Commissioner Mark Green, putting his head into his hands, further announced that he had just learned five minutes earlier that the fire company's building insurance will be dropped by the carrier due to "high risk and the high number of claims."

The commissioners then went into a seven-minute closed-door executive session taken under the umbrella of the "personnel" exemption from the open meetings law.

When it was pointed out to the commissioners that the firefighters are not employees of the township, and therefore there was no basis to discuss the matter outside of public view under the personnel exemption, Township Manager Scott Hutt said the township provides their worker's compensation coverage.

Hutt said the arrangement with Pottstown, first sought out in November and delayed until now, will cost West Pottsgrove taxpayers between $135,000 and $140,000 -- "about the same as what we pay West End."

The arrangement would go into effect Thursday and, as a result, West Pottsgrove will no longer be authorized to respond to fire calls in the township.

It was not immediately clear what effect, if any, the West Pottsgrove vote will have on West End's arrangement to provide fire protection services to neighboring Douglass (Berks) Township.

According to Hutt, there were were four true emergency calls in May to which both Pottstown and West End responded "and Pottstown arrived first at each one, with an average response time of four minutes."

In June, there were nine emergency calls and Pottstown arrived first at eight of them. "Facts are facts," said Hutt, calling the Pottstown fire response "more reliable and they are a much more professional organization."

Eric Hoffman asked the commissioners to
delay their vote for two weeks.
Before the vote, Eric Hoffman, a member of the steering committee trying to mend fences between the fire company and township, asked the commissioners to delay the vote until the next meeting in two weeks. 

"I didn't know about" the potential loss of building insurance "until 20 minutes ago. I'm not necessarily opposed to what you're proposing, but I would like the opportunity to to resolve it first with the fire company."

Commissioners Chairman Steve Miller said the vote is no reflection on the fire company steering committee.

The steering committee, whose members were selected by the fire company, was formed in the wake of a tumultuous special community meeting in June at which the commissioners acquiesced to the many resident calls to try to work things out.  

The township will continue to work with that committee "the help it straighten out" the fire company's finances during the 18-month suspension, Miller said. "It is not our intention to exclude the fire company. We're not saying we're done," he said.

Prior to going into executive session, Hutt read from a prepared statement outlining the township's disagreements with the fire company including what he called "a carousel of leadership," marked by yet "another new president" being named recently.

Hutt said the fire company had tried to "get around its debts" by forming a new entity with a new employee ID number and that the township was now getting calls from a collection agency for a bill for new equipment of $21,099, "which is perplexing because the township had provided $21,154 in relief funds two weeks before the purchase."

The debt had originally been $31,099 but the fire company has been making some payments, he said.

The fire company, Hutt said "wants to continue to be a taxpayer funded entity with no oversight," adding, "they seem more interested in the internal politics of the company than making progress and they seem to take a misguided pride in being at odds with the township."

A fire company meeting on Aug. 2 resulted in the police being called, said Hutt, adding that no full company meetings have been held since the emergency COVID-19 lock-downs were lifted.

Lori Eckman told the commissioners she was at the Aug. 2 meeting. "I got the police called on me for attending a meeting, and I'm a member," she said.

"The leadership have destroyed the heart of the fire company, they've destroyed everything," said Eckman. "People think I hate the fire company, but I'm trying to save it.


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