NEWTOWN TOWNSHIP >> More than 100 residents along with uniformed members of the all-volunteer Newtown Fire Association (NFA) packed the Oct. 26 supervisors’ meeting to voice their displeasure over a recommendation that the township sever its long-standing partnership with the NFA in favor of setting up its own volunteer force.
According to fire association president Will Fabian, the group was “blindsided” by township manager Kurt Ferguson’s failing to notify the NFA before publicly announcing the recommendation to end the 127-year relationship in his Oct. 17 presentation of the 2017 proposed general fund operating budget.
“It’s unfortunate the [township] manager felt it necessary to make a public announcement without first notifying those primarily involved and those that have been the backbone of the fire service here in Newtown since 1889,” Fabian read from a statement during the 45-minute public discussion.
He went on to tout the NFA’s many accomplishments and professionalism, as well as service to both Newtown Borough and Township.
The Newtown Fire Association’s detailed response to the township manager’s recommendations can be found below.
“Each one of us does not do it for the money because it’s volunteer,” he noted. “We do it to give back to the same community that we reside in.”
On its Facebook page, the NFA warned that if the agreement was severed, it would cost about $1 million to put a new system in place, and could result in a 75 percent decrease in fire and rescue services, as well as a doubling of response times in parts of Newtown.
Fabian also criticized Ferguson’s proposal to create a hybrid force comprised of the township’s Emergency Services Department and new volunteers that would be hired to cover the hours when the paid department is off the clock.
Currently, the township’s own Emergency Services Department (ESD) operates with a paid staff and chief, covering the township 60 hours a week, Mondays through Fridays from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m.
The NFA, which is based in Newtown Borough and operates a second fire station at the township's municipal complex, responds to calls in the township all other times, including overnights and weekends.
The township's ESD has eight paid full-time firefighters under the command of Chief Glenn Forsyth, who the supervisors had appointed in June 2012.
The paid emergency squad was formed several years ago to provide manpower when the most of the members of the Newtown Fire Association were at their regular jobs.
As part of Ferguson’s recommended changes, the township would hire a salaried deputy fire chief to help build the volunteer force of at least 15 members, which would cover the township for the 108 hours when the paid-firefighters are off.
Under the scenario, the new deputy chief would be tasked with fostering cooperation with regional all-volunteer fire departments, especially those in Wrightstown and Upper Makefield townships, as well as other neighboring volunteer fire companies.
According to Ferguson, the regional cooperation would not only include a mutual aid assist in fighting fires, but also physically sharing volunteers to staff each other fire stations.
A used fire engine would also be purchased to supplement the township’s current engine to be operated by the new volunteer force.
Newtown Township currently has earmarked $170,000 of its fire services tax in the 2016 general fund operating budget for the NFA and the same amount is proposed for the next fiscal year ending Dec. 31, 2017.
But then, according to the township manager, all financial ties would be cut after the two-year agreement expires.
In addition, Ferguson has proposed that Newtown Township would keep all of the $130,000 in state funds, which currently is dispersed to the non-profit Newtown Volunteer Firefighters' Relief Association, which benefits volunteer NFA firefighters and their families in case of death, or serious injury.
The state funding also is used to purchase specific NFA firefighting and safety equipment.
As part of the township’s manager’s plan, an apprenticeship program would be offered through Bucks County Community College for fire safety students to qualify for credits by volunteering with Newtown Township, a proposal that the NFA says it has supported in the past.
Before the fire association spoke at the supervisor’s meeting, Ferguson said that one of the main reasons for his recommendation to uncouple the current partnership was the NFA’s inflexibility to changes, as well as its alleged disdain for cooperating with the township’s paid firefighting force and chief.
“On all these topics there has been resistance,” he explained, claiming that the NFA did not want to compromise on equipment, attracting volunteers and other matters that Ferguson had repeatedly proposed since he became township manager in 2011.
“At one time the NFA said it didn’t want to cooperate with the township and Chief [Glen] Forsyth,” Ferguson said.
But the fire association’s president Will Fabian disputed the township manager’s claims, saying that the NFA will “continue to be open to new ideas, joint collaboration and changes made in the best interest of the residents of Newtown.”
Meanwhile, Republican Supervisor Ryan Gallagher, who is the board’s liaison with the fire association, urged the township to continue to use the NFA, whose service and members he praised.
“There are things we can do together to continue to have an efficient and effective fire service,” Gallagher maintained, while at the same time noting that the township manager’s proposal is “innovative to say the least.
“But I don’t think we should be addressing the issue through the budget process,” he added.
Gallagher, who is running for state representative in the 31st district, also suggested that a special committee be formed of borough, township and NFA officials in order to study the issue further, an idea that was also endorsed by Newtown Borough Mayor Charles Swartz.
“I would be very open to sit down with the township and fire association to talk,” the mayor told the supervisors during public comment.
Newtown Borough relies on the NFA for its fire-protection services.
But Gallagher’s suggestion for all sides to sit down and talk about the issue seemed to garner little support from fellow board members, who remained silent during the public discussion
In the end, no resolution was offered to empanel such an ad hoc committee.
Supervisor Chairman Kyle Davis told BucksLocalNews that he was unsure that such a panel would ever get the go-ahead from the board.
The hot button NFA funding issue prompted a number of residents to speak out, all of them in favor of continuing the partnership.
Kimberly McClay said that while Newtown firefighters can respond to a blaze within several minutes, while surrounding companies could take as long as 13 minutes, a difference she said could be mean life or death especially in cases of smoke inhalation.
“You’re dead, your children are dead,” she stressed. “Think about your family, our children when you make this decision.”
Fellow township resident Tom Gallina of Swamp Road, whose college-age son is a volunteer NFA firefighter, said that he was “offended” by the proposal to cut funding to the fire association.
“It sounds to me like a personality conflict,” he said of the current situation.
Even State Rep. Steve Santarsiero (D-31) weighed in on the dispute.
Reading a letter from Santarsiero, who is running for Congress, his chief of staff Rosemary Wuenschel said that the legislator “strongly urged” the supervisors “to keep the agreement with the Newtown Fire Association.
“As long as the Newtown Fire Association is willing to offer this outstanding service to our community, I stand with these volunteers and urge the supervisors to find ways to better support our firefighters and foster a stronger collaboration between the fire association and the township,” Santarsiero’s statement emphasized.
At the end of the discussion, Supervisor Gallagher pointed out that there are 14 months until Newtown’s current funding ends with the NFA, and said something must be worked out.
“We should be a good neighbor,” he implored. “This could have a big impact on the borough, we owe it to borough residents.”
Over the next few weeks, several public budget hearings will be scheduled to tweak the operating plan, which will also be discussed at the regular supervisors’ meetings.
The call to end the fire services agreement is sure to be a hot topic during those meetings.
Under state law, a final budget package must be in place by Dec. 31.
For several years the relationship between the township and NFA had been chilly at best.
In 2011, the supervisors hired the Matrix Consulting Group, which made a number of recommendations, including creating a township fire chief’s position, to oversee the paid township staff, as well as the borough’s volunteer association when it responded to calls in Newtown Township.
That report had concluded that two fire companies under separate commands needed to be more unified for both efficiency and public safety.
Earlier this year when the township supervisors had approved a new two-year pact with the fire association, the seven-page agreement specifically spelled out who is charge when the NFA answers calls in the township, as well as mandated response times.
In other action, the supervisors unanimously approved an ordinance authorizing the township’s bond consulting firm, Public Financial Management, Inc., to handle the issuing of $9.5 million in bonds to refinance a 2012 issue.
According to PFM’s Zach Williard, the township would save about $150,000 over the next 17 years to take advantage of lower interest rates.
And the supervisors also voted 5-0 to grant conditional use approval for the YMCA to operate two day-care facilities at Chandler Hall on South Sycamore Street.
One area would be for infants and toddlers, and the other for preschoolers.
Both sites have been in operation since 1988 but it was recently discovered that no conditional use was ever formally approved.
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