Fire station remains hot stove issue in Palmerton
TERRY AHNER/TIMES NEWS Palmerton Borough Council President Terry Costenbader voices his displeasure after a motion to not build a new fire station in the borough failed.
Palmerton Borough Council's failure to support a motion to not construct a new fire station in the borough has lit a fire under one borough councilman.
A motion by Councilman Kris Hoffner to not proceed with plans to build a new fire station was defeated by a 4-3 measure on Thursday, much to the dismay of council President Terry Costenbader.
Councilmen Chris Olivia, Richard Nothstein, Jeremy Barbosa and Michael Ballard voted against the motion. Councilman Jason Behler, Hoffner, and Costenbader voted in the affirmative.
Hoffner said he brought the matter up because "no official decision has been voted on."
Council had previously been undecided whether to build a brand new fire station, or return a $906,000 grant it received that was designed to do just that.
However, after last month's council meeting, borough manager Rodger Danielson told the TIMES NEWS that a new fire station appeared to be "off the books." Further, Danielson said at that time that the borough had applied for amended ways to use those funds that had yet to be determined by the state.
Prior to the vote, Nothstein said he doesn't believe the borough should return the grant when it could be used to improve the borough's infrastructure. Barbosa echoed Nothstein's sentiment.
But, Costenbader retorted that "if we can't use the money per the amended project, then the money's going back."
Because the motion to not build a fire company failed, Olivia questioned why council wasn't moving ahead to look to build a new one.
Costenbader said that he and Danielson sat with state Rep. Doyle Heffley (R-122) to discuss the matter.
"Sending the money back does not impact this borough one iota for future grants," Costenbader said. "If we lose the $900,000, we can reapply."
Danielson reiterated that the borough is "awaiting a determination" from the state.
Olivia then asked to make a motion to build a new fire station, which died due to a lack of a second.
That suggestion clearly upset Costenbader, who said he's been through the process for the past two to two-and-a-half years.
"This thing is over with, and I'm done with it," he said. "We had this thing straightened out; I'm done."
Costenbader continued "this whole fire station thing is done, I'm telling you."
Olivia stood firm in his stance, and said it was up to council to decide on the matter, and not the fire department.
"We can build a fire station at Third and Lehigh (at the borough garage complex), and we're saying we can't," he said. "This is our decision, not their decision."
Hoffner explained the rationale behind his decision.
"I voted based on what the firefighters [previously] said," he said. "It is a tough decision."
At last month's meeting, council, on a 5-0 vote, approved an agreement with the Palmerton West End Fire Company that outlines responsibilities and obligations.
Danielson said at that time the agreement was created to help improve communication between both parties. The fire company signed the terms of the agreement, he said.
In March, the borough received a letter from the Palmerton Fire Department with 25 signatures from members who said they wanted the grant money - that was received for the new fire station - to be returned to the state because their current facilities were fine.
That letter was in response to council's plan as of February to build a new fire station near the intersection of Third Street and Avenue B.
At the March meeting, council Vice President Chris Olivia asked the firefighters if they were opposed to building a three-bay garage at Third Street, to which it was stated they weren't if the borough wasn't able to return the money.
Hoffner said at that meeting the borough could either send the money back to the state; build a two or three-bay building; or send the money back to another fire department in need.
Joe Rogowitz, president of the fire company, said at that time the fire company's preferred option is for the borough to send the money back, or send it to another community in need of it.
Rogowitz said at that time that if the borough wanted to build a three-bay garage, and leave everything at the West End, there wouldn't be a problem. The problem, Rogowitz said, is if the borough would take the trucks out of the West End and move them.
That came after nearly 30 members of the fire company swarmed the council chambers in February opposed to the borough's decision at that time to build a new fire station near the intersection of Third Street and Avenue B.
Firefighters told council at that session to return the grant the borough received in April of 2010 to construct a new fire station. If not, the firefighters threatened to walk out over time.
Costenbader said the process got under way in June of 2009 as part of a meeting held to consolidate both fire companies. Due to the consolidation, the belief was that there should be a new station to house all the equipment at one location.
As a result, Costenbader said the borough applied for the grant. After its third application, the borough received the $906,000 grant 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. In February of 2011, 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 from which he has since been removed. Further, Rogowitz said "we never seen the letter."
In March of 2011, 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 of 2011 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 of 2011, Costenbader said he and then Councilman Randolph 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.
Costenbader said that in January, council chose not to purchase those properties "due to a problem with the acquisition."