NEWTOWN BOROUGH >> The Newtown Borough Council on August 9 directed its solicitor to draft an intergovernmental fire services agreement with neighboring Newtown.
Under the draft agreement, Newtown Borough is proposing to pay the township $177,940 a year, or about four additional mills of tax, beginning in 2022 for fire protection.
The agreement is contingent upon Fire Chief Glenn Forsyth’s recommendation that the township hire five additional full-time firefighters to support weekend service.
According to Councilor Marvin Cohen, who leads the borough’s fire service committee, the borough is asking that payment would be modified based on any grants secured for the salary and/or outfitting of the firefighters and if the firefighters are hired later than January 2022.
The borough is basing its contribution on population, which it argues is the fairest way to split the cost of fire service. Under the borough’s proposal, the tax would equate to $91.11 for each borough and township resident.
“By basing the payment on the total borough plus the township population the payment per resident is equal, which is particularly important because there are instances where a borough and a township home are directly across the street from each other,” said Cohen.
It remains to be seen whether the township is willing to accept the borough’s proposal. At previous meetings, the supervisors have argued for a larger contribution from the borough based on the percentage of calls responded to by the firefighters and not on population.
In a 4 to 0 vote at its July meeting, the board of supervisors directed its solicitor to draft an amendment to the township’s fee schedule to impose a fire services fee on Newtown Borough a year retroactive to Jan. 1.
Borough officials said the township can’t arbitrarily bill the borough unless it first has an intergovernmental cooperation agreement in place stipulating to the payment. They called the township’s actions “rubbish.”
The township’s solicitor David Sander this week disagreed. “They are receiving a service from us and are not paying for it. If you follow their logic, if they never decide to pay us, if they never enter into an agreement, we’d never get paid.
“We tried to negotiate with them, which failed miserably because there were insulting offers made by the borough with regard to how much they were going to pay us for fire service,” said Sander. “We also drafted an agreement establishing a fire services fee, sent it to them and we never heard anything back from them.”
That proposal asked the borough to contribute $249,271.14 a year based on the amount of time the Newtown Emergency Services spends in the borough.
According to Sander, the figure equals 18 percent of the township’s fire services budget. Eighteen percent is also the amount of time Newtown Emergency Services spends in the borough.
In light of the proposed agreement from the borough, the supervisors voted to table the fee amendment. They also voted 3 to 2 to rekindle negotiations for another month to see if they lead to an agreement.
Cohen said under the township’s formula, borough residents would have to pay an average of $239.37 while township residents would pay on average $76.34.
“By shifting the percentage to the township proposal there would be a marginal decrease in the amount of taxes by a township resident of about $15, but the amount that would have to be paid by a borough resident would skyrocket by almost $150,” said Cohen. “This discrepancy would stand out starkly for a borough and a township home being next door to each other yet paying a dramatically different amount for the same service.
“This payment would result in a resident of the borough paying three times as much in taxes for services as a township resident,” argued Cohen.
Talks began five months ago when the township approached the borough about shouldering some of the cost for fire services, which has been transitioning to a paid force due to a dwindling volunteer force.
When the township hired its first full time firefighters to augment the volunteer force, the borough agreed to pick up the cost of workman’s compensation for the volunteers.
Since then, the volunteer ranks have continued to decline, forcing the township to consider expanding its paid fire staff. It also reached out to the borough, asking it to begin picking up its fair share of the cost.
“We agreed that yes, the borough needs to pay its fair share,” said Newtown Borough Council President Tara Grunde-McLaughlin. “We are definitely at that point. In essence, if we are not getting sufficient volunteers to run the uNFA as it used to be, then it’s either tax dollars or volunteers.
“For a while, when Lockheed Martin was here, there was more income. The township is now looking at its own budget and looking at what it needs to do,” she said.
“There’s been pretty much an assumption from the beginning on the committee that the answer to the question, ‘Should the borough contribute?,’ is yes,” added Cohen. “It all comes down to what is the appropriate share.”
“I always felt that the Newtown Fire Association, whether it’s the paid or volunteer firefighters, they are serving the greater Newtown area and we need to look at how that burden is shared by everyone,” said Councilor Julia Woldorf. “We should all be sharing the burden equally. And I’m glad to see the proposal that’s being presented is attempting to do that. A fire in a house in Newtown Borough and a fire in a house in Newtown Township there is no difference. Both need the fire company to come out to you. And one family should not pay more than another family to get the same service.”
Councilor Nicole Rodowicz thanked Cohen and the fire service committee, including Grunde-McLaughlin and Mayor Charles Swartz for coming up with a “very fair” number.
“This has been discussed for a very long time,” said Rodowicz. “In our budget and finance committee meetings we have gone over this ... You came up with a very fair number and I thank you for working that out.”