RICE TWP. — A vote Tuesday could sound a death knell for Rice Township Volunteer Fire Department.
A bitter battle over the ailing department’s future leading up to a vote to decertify the department has caused divisions in the township.
Armed with a list of the department’s alleged shortcomings, the township supervisors approached Rob Brady, a fire department expert from the Governor’s Center for Local Government Services for advice.
“After he reviewed all the facts and stories, (Brady’s) recommendation was to decertify Rice Township,” said Supervisor George Venesky.
In an ordinance printed in the newspaper last week, supervisors list grievances against the department including:
• Lack of training.
• Poor financial oversight.
• Letting members younger than 18 drive firetrucks and not dismissing a member who drove a truck while intoxicated.
• Poor care of the fire department building to the extent that it can no longer be a qualified polling place.
The ordinance also says that members burned garbage illegally on fire department property.
Venesky said at least one active member has been arrested since the beginning of the year. A Game Commission officer arrested Justin Coledo, 20, of Nanticoke, last month on several misdemeanor charges including receiving stolen property and summary charges of using a firearm to hunt out of season in Rice Township, court records show.
Thomas said misdemeanor offenses do not preclude a volunteer from serving with a fire department.
Department on the mend
Decertification ordinance opponents say the department has been weeding out the bad seeds and getting back on track. Last September, the department was in trouble with state agencies because training and financial reports were years behind.
Former Chief Don Bly asked supervisors at a public meeting last year to be patient as the volunteers work out problems they inherited from past administrators. Bly was charged with theft in March after allegedly sifting about $4,400 from the department’s general fund.
Paul Eyerman took over after Bly was arrested and has been working to restore the department.
Eyerman said his personnel training records are up to snuff and all the bills are current. The bills were paid with money from residents’ donations. Brady recommended that supervisors should not disperse the township’s quarterly allotment to the department pending review of their complaints, board of supervisors Chairman Miller Stella said.
Eyerman confirmed the department has not received payment for this calendar year.
“The only issue we do have, and every fire department throughout the state runs into this, is a low manpower situation during the day shift,” Eyerman said.
He said he has been diligently recruiting new members and bringing back those who left.
Venesky said he has heard promises before.
“That’s a broken record. That’s an old story,” Venesky said. “We’ve been hearing that for two and a half years. It hasn’t worked.”
Supervisor Marcia Thomas is the only board member in favor of saving the department. “In a very thoughtful way, they are regrouping,” Thomas said of the the department’s improvement efforts.
Thomas said, though the supervisors have been struggling to find a solution for the department, the talk had always been about regionalizing with Dorrance and Wright townships’ volunteer squads.
Back in February, the supervisors worked with Brady, who has helped regionalize departments all over the state, to come up with a plan for Mountain Top. Thomas said, behind closed doors, they spoke of shutting down the department.
“They’ve been hinting about (decertification) for months. But in public, the discussion has always been about a merge,” Thomas said.
Thomas said decertification will reduce the chances of regionalizing almost entirely.
A public safety matter
Stella said he is most concerned about the township’s safety.
“It’s a liability issue,” Stella said. “There’s residents’ lives at stake. Responsibilities fall on top of me and then they fall on the board of supervisors.”
Stella recounted emergencies within the last few months to which the Wright Township Volunteer Fire Department responded while Rice Township volunteers showed up late or not at all.
Eyerman confirmed that, two weeks ago, Rice Township crews did not respond to a one-car crash near Rice Elementary School. He said, however, a few of his firefighters were on the scene. He said the Mountain Top Mutual Aid program was created for these reasons and Wright Township is being dispatched simultaneously with other Mountain Top departments.
The crash was the only call missed this year, Eyerman said.
Wright Township Fire Chief David Pettit said his crews have been answering to Rice Township Emergencies since January when the Rice Township supervisors asked the 911 dispatcher to send out Wright simultaneously with Rice.
Pettit favors a merge and thinks they could pull it off despite supervisors no-confidence vote.
“To us, it’s more like, ‘OK, let’s merge and be done with it.’ We’re staying a neutral party because we don’t want to be involved with the politics,” Pettit said.
If Tuesday’s vote shuts down Rice’s department, Wright Township will be the first responders for Rice and Wright townships.