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Firefighters threaten to walk out

  • TERRY AHNER/TIMES NEWS Volunteer firefighter Jereme Barkanic, front, tells borough council it should send back the grant money it received to build a brand new fire station.
    TERRY AHNER/TIMES NEWS Volunteer firefighter Jereme Barkanic, front, tells borough council it should send back the grant money it received to build a brand new fire station.
Published February 24. 2012 05:01PM

Palmerton has been asked to return a grant it received to build a new fire station, or run the potential risk of watching the majority of their volunteer firefighters walk out.

That was the proposal presented to borough council on Thursday by members of the Palmerton Fire Department, which had 29 members in attendance who were opposed to the borough's prior decision to build a new fire station.

As emotions overflowed, members of the fire department stated their vehement opposition to council's decision earlier this month to proceed with the construction of a new fire station near the intersection of Third Street and Avenue B.

Joe Rogowitz, president of the Palmerton Fire Company, told council the firefighters' purpose was to "try to deter you from building a fire station."

"The membership is asking you one more time, please send the money (a $940,000 grant) back," Rogowitz said. "You own the (fire) trucks, but we own the equipment."

Rogowitz added that rumors that the West End fire station would close have been unfounded was a "false statement."

"You know that is false; we will close that building (the West End station) if you proceed to take those trucks out," he said. "We also showed you a petition saying these gentlemen may quit."

Rogowitz proceeded to tell council "you people do not get up at 2 in the morning, 3 in the morning, 4 in the morning, to answer the calls."

"We already made up our minds," he said. "We will turn it (the West End station) over to you, and you can handle the calls right now."

Councilman Chris Olivia remarked that "not all" of the firefighters were against the borough's decision to build a new fire station.

Rogowitz said three other firefighters chose not to attend the meeting because they felt "threatened because they work for the borough."

"Is borough council willing to take on the responsibility of answering the calls for the Borough of Palmerton?

"We didn't ask for this (grant); if they (decide to) raise taxes, we don't want it to be the fault of anyone here," he said. "We didn't ask for one (a new fire station)."

Further, Rogowitz told council they haven't validated the need for a new fire station.

"You still have not justified needing a brand new fire house; we offered you a building for free," he said. "Send the money back, and there are no problems."

Olivia again interjected, and added that he earlier in the day signed off on a maintenance fee for the fire department in the amount of $500.

Rogowitz then asked what council gives the firefighters for their "thousands upon thousands of hours for free."

"We have been misdirected numerous, numerous times," he said. "We are giving a free service, but we can't guarantee that will last."

Once more, Rogowitz asked "are you councilmen prepared to answer calls in the middle of the night?"

Councilman Randolph Gursky told Rogowitz "we appreciate everything you do for us."

Rogowitz then reiterated that there is no need to build a new fire station.

"I do not see the justification for needing a brand-new building," he said. "We have two perfectly fine buildings where they stand."

Rogowitz then told council the firefighters would go as far as to sell or donate the equipment from the apparatus.

Olivia once again interjected and remarked "Chris Olivia is the gentleman that got you new fire equipment."

Mayor Brad Doll tried to calm things down, and told the firefighters no decision would made by council at this point in time.

"Give them (council) that opportunity to digest that," Doll said. "Please go when the whistle blows."

Rogowitz said the firefighters still planned to provide their services to the borough for the time being.

Council President Terry Costenbader then offered his perspective on the situation as he read a timeline of events.

Costenbader said the process get under way in June of 2009 as part of a meeting held to consolidate both fire companies at that time.

"At this meeting, it was brought up by one of the firemen that when there was a consolidation, there should be a new station to house all the equipment at one location," Costenbader said. "Part of this decision was made because of the two companies not being cross-trained on equipment."

As a result, Costenbader said the borough applied for the grant. After its third application, the borough received a $906,000 grant in April of 2010, for a new fire station, he said.

That June, Costenbader said the fire company formed a building committee, at which point the borough received a letter from the committee with a list of four proposed sites for the station: Renovate the current fire house; put one at Fifth and Delaware Avenue; put one at Fifth and Lehigh Avenue; or put one at the Third Street complex.

In October of 2010, Costenbader said the borough accepted the grant, presented by then Speaker of the House Keith McCall, for the purchase of a new fire station. It was determined at that time that the borough would utilize that grant, along with $35,000 from the borough's general fund, to cover the $940,000 cost to construct the fire station, borough officials said.

From there, council made the decision to build the fire station at Fifth and Lehigh Avenue, and advertised for proposals for its design, Costenbader said. Last February, he said the borough received a letter from the fire company to purchase the properties at 509-511 Lehigh Avenue for more room, he said.

Costenbader read an excerpt from that letter that states "the membership of the West End Fire Company #2 is strongly encouraging you to pursue acquiring the properties at 509-511 Lehigh Avenue."

But, Rogowitz interjected that letter was from a current member of the fire company, who at that time served as fire company building committee chairman, a position he has since been removed from. Further, Rogowitz said "we never seen the letter."

In March, Costenbader said the fire company committee recommended that the borough hire Steve Elton as architect, which it did in May.

After a meeting in June in which Costenbader and Olivia met with the fire company to discuss concerns about the purchase of those properties, Costenbader said the borough sent Elton to look at the building and issue a report, which he submitted along with the location for a new fire station.

In September, Costenbader said he and Gursky met with the membership to discuss the new fire station, Elton's report, and the membership's petition. Later that month, the borough decided to purchase the homes at 509-511 Lehigh Ave. to increase the lot size as per the fire company's recommendation, whereby that purchase would not come out of the grant money, he said.

Last month, Costenbader said council chose not to purchase those properties "due to a problem with the acquisition."

The borough then decided last week to build the fire station at the Third Street complex, Costenbader said.

"What I don't understand here is the fire company requested the person to hire as architect, which we did," he said. "And, we followed the order of sites you wanted."

Costenbader also noted that the last two fire trucks purchased by the borough totaled over $1 million, about $922,000 of which the borough paid for, and read off a list of other expenses the borough pays on the fire companies' behalf.

"It sounds to me like there's a miscommunication somewhere along the line; everything we have on paper, is what we're trying to follow," he said. "I don't understand why we're sitting here."

Rogowitz shot back to Costenbader that there were "numerous things you said that were a lie."

"No, we were told by you people 'this is what you're going to build and where'," Rogowitz said. "You're telling blatant lies."

Costenbader told Rogowitz he took exception to those accusations.

"We are not asking for a new fire house, plain and simple," Rogowitz said. "If you're building one, you're doing it because you're borough council and you can."

Volunteer firefighter Jereme Barkanic, who serves as chairman of the fire company building committee, told council the spending of the grant money "is ludicrous."

"We don't need it; why spend it just because we got it?," he asked. "You're spending money unjustifiably for something we don't need."

Resident Harley Shupp, a retired firefighter who served the West End Fire Department for over 25 years, urged council to put the brakes on their plan.

"I think having it the way we have it today is fabulous," Shupp said. "The common consensus is they're asking you to reconsider."

Shupp said his belief is that the borough should send the grant money back.

"The West End Fire Company is built out of brick and mortar," he said. "You're going to get a tin box for what you're going to build."

Resident Tim Gursky, who lives in the West End, asked why the borough couldn't just leave well enough alone.

"Whatever happened to don't fix something if it isn't broke," Tim Gursky said. "If they (West End firefighters) walk out, we're screwed."

Resident William Ramer, who also resides in the West End, urged council to work with the firefighters.

"If you take that fire company away from the people of the West End, you're going to hurt the people of the West End," Ramer said. "You got to keep that fire company out there; the people need that fire company there."

Shupp told council the firefighters are merely asking them "to let history alone."

"Everything that these guys do week-in and week-out is for the community," Shupp said. "They're asking you to let well enough alone."

As of last week, borough manager Rodger Danielson said that despite the opposition, construction was still expected to occur this year.

After the meeting, Costenbader told the TIMES NEWS that the matter would be discussed among the borough's Public Safety Committee, of which he is not a part of.

"It's in their hands," he said. "They'll make some sort of decision."

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