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Fire station plan remains unsettled

Published March 23. 2012 05:01PM

Whether or not Palmerton will build a brand new fire station, or return a $906,000 grant designed to do so, remains in limbo.

Cooler heads prevailed on Thursday as about 10 members of the Palmerton Fire Department met with borough council for an update on the matter.

Jereme Barkanic, a volunteer firefighter who serves as chairman of the fire company building committee, asked council where the situation stood.

Council President Terry Costenbader told Barkanic that council just had a chance to review the most recent letter the fire company sent to the borough.

The letter, which had 25 signatures from members of the fire company, states "We, the members of the Palmerton Fire Department, want the grant money which was received for the new fire station, to be returned to the state since we feel the current facilities for our fire department are fine the way they are."

That letter was in response to council's plan as announced last month to build a new fire station near the intersection of Third Street and Avenue B.

Costenbader said the borough has been in contact with the state with regard to the fire department's request, but had not yet heard back.

"We want to table this, at least for tonight," Costenbader said. "Rather than jump in, we'd like to have some answers and clarifications on this."

Barkanic than asked if the borough still planned to build a new fire station, to which Councilman Jason Behler said council wouldn't know "until we get answers back from the state."

Council Vice President Chris Olivia then asked if the firefighters were opposed to building a three-bay garage at Third Street, to which Barkanic said they aren't if the borough isn't able to return the money.

Councilman Kris Hoffner told the firefighters the borough essentially has three options: 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.

"We're listening to everybody; we want to get this right," Hoffner said. "We have time because we got an extension (to spend the grant) until June of 2013."

Councilman Richard Nothstein said he would hate to see the money go back, as it would likely be used in a bigger city such as Philadelphia or Pittsburgh.

That prompted Joe Rogowitz, president of the fire company, to suggest that both sides were right back to square one.

Costenbader then suggested that council meet with the firefighters one day next week.

"What I would like to do is sit with the fire company and discuss a number of options," Costenbader said. "I don't want miscommunication."

Costenbader said he wasn't sure what path the borough should take.

"Here comes this letter, and you're telling me to send this money back," he said. "Now, I'm hearing if we build a three-bay garage, you're OK."

Rogowitz told Costenbader 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.

"If you want to build a three-bay garage, and leave everything at the West End, I don't believe there's any problem," Rogowitz said. "If you're taking the trucks out of the West End and moving them, that's a problem."

Resident Patricia Peters said of the situation, "I'd like to ask that if you do have this discussion, whatever decision you make, please make sure it will not result in a higher cost to the borough (down the line)."

Olivia told Peters council is always fiscally conservative.

"A new sewer plant, we're building for $10 million to help the people of this town," Olivia said. "It's (a new fire department) for this town; we are not wasting money."

Barkanic told Olivia he took exception to his claim that it would improve the community.

"I am not in favor of building a big fire company," Hoffner said.

"I don't like some of the atmosphere," Nothstein added. "I hope and think we're here for the best interests of the community."

Resident Donald Grow mentioned that the borough's fire police force has increased, and is now up to five members.

"We are continuing to grow," Grow said. "We are moving forward so that we can supplement the force."

Rogowitz then thanked council for sending firefighters to training.

The meeting was in stark contrast to last month's session, when nearly 30 members of the fire company swarmed the council chambers opposed to the borough's decision to build a new fire station near the intersection of Third Street and Avenue B.

At that time, firefighters told council to return the $906,000 grant the borough received in April of 2010 to construct a new fire station. If not, the firefighters threatened to walk out in time.

Costenbader gave a timeline of events at that time, in which he 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. 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 from which he has since been removed. 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 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."

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

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