I have never shied away from writing about hot-button issues. But when I asked one local official about the area's volunteer fire companies, he clearly didn't share my comfort with controversy. His tongue-in-cheek reply: "Just about the time when there are a few people starting to like you, you want to go off and tackle this!!!! Is this masochism? Even though I am not up for re-election, suicide is such an unpleasant thought."
Why do our firefighters strike terror in the hearts of elected leaders? After all, the brave men and women of the Richland, Trumbauersville, Richlandtown and two Quakertown companies regularly risk their lives for this community. Many of us owe them an unpayable debt of gratitude for saving our homes, our belongings, our pets, and even our lives. The elephant in the room is political correctness. Because they are so necessary, and because they do risk their lives, no one wants to get into a public debate over whether we have too many companies. And too much duplicated expensive equipment. And whether $3 million is too much to spend on a new T'ville firehouse. And how the departments, which are private organizations funded primarily with taxpayer dollars, have not been accountable to anyone but themselves.
But the state was so concerned about this issue that it passed specific legislation in May. Fire and emergency personnel must now meet with municipal officials at least once a year, as part of the budget process, to evaluate service needs. The organizations must provide itemized accountings of expenditures that were paid out of town appropriations from the previous year. And this accounting must be presented before any additional funding can be considered.
Another local elected leader confided "Our fire company gives us a financial statement each year, but it is pretty much useless. My feeling is that they fear that if we knew how much they had, we might not give them anything, or at least reduce what we give them. Now they are going to have to come clean with their finances. They resist oversight, but it is now dictated by law".
In addition to that new scrutiny, the PA Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) has been working for years to encourage regional consolidation. A 2003 study concluded "Although merging, regionalizing or consolidating fire companies are not popular ideas, this trend has become a necessity. Across Pennsylvania the number of volunteers have continued to decrease while equipment and service cost have risen. Many fire companies across Pennsylvania have realized that forming a partnership is the only option if they are to continue providing the level of response that the communities have grown accustomed to receiving".
Each of our fire organizations is its own little kingdom, with its own officers, volunteers, and equipment. They are social clubs as well as fire fighters. Their funding process is cumbersome, with each making separate requests to each town they serve, for both operations money and equipment money. And, until now, none of the municipalities had any oversight of the funds once they were disbursed. There has not been any suggestion of impropriety. The problem is that each company wants to have the most and the best. And, of course, each wants to keep up with the others. The result has been duplication of hundreds of thousands of dollars in apparatus. Meanwhile, the elected leaders who are asked to hand over your tax dollars are in a quandary.
Richland Supervisor Craig Staats acknowledged "Every year we get requests for funding by five surrounding fire houses. A big piece of these requests are for new equipment. Quite frankly, we don't have the expertise to know if this is a real need, or something from their wish list. This is something that should be looked at by individuals or agencies that have the expertise to make comprehensive recommendations". So Richland has turned the question over to the experts at DCED for a study of the needs and operations of the five companies.
DCED did a similar review of nearby Hilltown last year. Among their 35 recommendations was "A consolidation of all seven fire companies serving Hilltown Township should be given some consideration. Each year there are fewer and fewer volunteer fire fighters, with the numbers dwindling particularly over the past 15 to 20 years. There may be a time in the not so distant future, when none of these seven fire companies will be able to fully staff their apparatus when responding to calls". DCED has guided many mergers, and is currently working on several others, including four companies in Saucon Valley, and four in Millersville.
Millersville Mayor Dick Moriarty, who has been a fire company member and treasurer for more than 30 years, explained "The fire companies have asked for DCED's assistance in this venture, as they have a proven track record of success when it comes to fire company merger/consolidations. Although it's sad to see the end of our Millersville Fire Company as we know it, there are so many benefits to this merger that there has been very little (if any) disagreement that this was needed".
Quakertown has two companies within only two square miles. Council President Jim Roberts says that the borough is "very aware of the problems of duplication. We expect to address these issues in 2009, but we are very pleased that a survey is being done. The costs of trucks and new equipment have gotten beyond the ability of individual companies and municipalities to fund at the rate previously enjoyed. Discussions about reasonable consolidations almost have to happen in order for the public to get a grasp on the situation. The existence of volunteer fire companies, absolutely critical to the safety of small PA communities, is dependent on responsible expenditures".
While consolidation is a tough sell, it would eliminate expensive duplication, assure fuller staffing, allow for easier funding, and save taxpayer dollars. But local companies would have to agree to share the wealth, rather than competing with each other for it.