After six years, the Borough of Mechanicsburg’s plan to consolidate its volunteer fire companies continues to be waylaid by what seems to be confusion and personal squabbles.
Borough officials put the onus on Citizen’s Fire & Rescue, one of Mechanicsburg’s two volunteer companies, which the borough says has been uncooperative — leading the borough council to adopt a plan last month to start a new fire company whether Citizen’s participates or not.
At Tuesday night’s borough council meeting, Citizen’s President Doug Boyd read a statement defending the company and the actions of its leadership.
“One thing I cannot be accused of is being a complete ‘no’ toward the merger or consolidation,” Boyd said.
His company’s “ideas were not given a chance,” Boyd said. He said the merger planning process was led by consultants and the borough’s appointed emergency planning staff, including Mechanicsburg Fire Chief Gary Neff, “without coming and having an open dialogue.”
But according to Neff, and other borough officials, Citizen’s has given mixed messages on whether it intends to go through with the merger.
The company provided an official response to the borough’s public safety committee in October, Neff said, indicating it did not wish to move forward.
“Their statement was that they didn’t think it was in their interest to merge at that time,” said Neff, who was hired this year as an overarching fire coordinator for the borough.
“That’s why [Boyd’s] letter last night was a little confusing. He has not been consistent, nor have his recommendations about merging been consistent,” Neff said Wednesday.
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The merger process
In 2012, Mechanicsburg’s borough council first approved the idea of merging its two fire companies — Washington, known as the “downtown” company or the “Washies,” and Citizen’s, known as the “hilltop” company, due to the location of their respective firehouses.
The consolidated company would be a primarily volunteer organization but would receive financial support and oversight from the borough in the form of a fire tax, an add-on to the borough’s normal property tax. The borough would also build a new, updated fire station.
In 2013, the borough began collecting the fire tax and dividing the proceeds between the two companies, citing it as a temporary solution until consolidation.
“Both fire companies had issued statements that they would look at consolidation of the two fire companies into one if the borough gave them this dedicated source of funding,” Mechanicsburg Borough Manager Roger Ciecierski said.
After six years of meetings, Ciecierski said, “one of the companies decided that there would be no merger,” referring to Citizen’s.
As it looks now, Mechanicsburg property owners won’t pay more in municipal real estate taxes next year.
Two weeks ago, Mechanicsburg Borough Council adopted a timeline and vision statement for the creation of a new fire company. The vision statement, in part, states that “the goal of consolidating Citizen’s and Washies was unsuccessful. A new volunteer fire company should be formed with both current companies invited to join and transfer assets as part of a borough plan.”
In a legal sense, the borough has little power over it’s fire companies. Both are independent nonprofit organizations, and the borough cannot force them to surrender their assets and membership to a new, consolidated company. Both companies can also continue to raise funds independent of the borough’s fire tax.
The new open-ended plan, adopted by the borough last month, can go forward even if there continues to be an impasse with Citizen’s. The new company is open to all comers who wish to participate, although it’s viability without Citizen’s membership and equipment is uncertain.
“The six-year-plus attempt to bring the companies to a merger has failed because of the Citizen’s fire company, period,” Neff said.
Concrete disagreements about the merger are few, and vague.
The Standard Operating Guidelines, company bylaws, fire pledge and code of ethics, and other organizational details have been worked on for years with no specific objections, according to those involved.
“The new bylaws are written, and no one had any problem with them. The new SOGs are implemented,” Ciecierski said.
Those bylaws involve the creation of a new fire company, open to members of both Washington and Citizen’s, that will elect a new board of directors and fire chiefs, Ciecierski said.
The borough’s timeline would lead to the construction of a new firehouse, and the two old firehouses being phased out of use, a measure Ciecierski said had also been agreed to early in the process as a cost-saving measure.
On Tuesday, Boyd intimated that this level of consolidation was unacceptable to Citizen’s, but Ciecierski said that the fire company “has never given a concrete indication” as to what parts of the consolidation plan it finds objectionable.
“There are portions of the departments that are already merged,” Boyd said, noting that financial operations are overseen by a joint borough committee since the introduction of the fire tax.
Boyd also said there are benefits to having separate companies with separate chiefs and physical locations, giving volunteers an option of whom to join depending on their preferences.
Boyd said he fears the borough will throttle back funding to accelerate Citizen’s membership jumping ship to the new centralized fire company.
“We just don’t want a hostile takeover,” he said.
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In fact, the borough is already withholding it’s fire tax payout for the fourth quarter of 2018, due to Citizen’s alleged failure to turn in required background checks, including the state’s child abuse prevention checks.
“Management has identified that both companies offer junior firefighter programs, and it is state law that they file those checks,” Neff said. “Ultimately, they’re not compliant, and it is against the law.”
Boyd said Citizen’s “may have a few people” who have not filed all the paperwork, but that these are administrators or personnel who don’t go on calls with young firefighters. He said the borough has been unhelpful in assisting the company with completing the checks.
“All [Neff] has done is send us emails saying he needs them,” Boyd said.
If the specific operational reasons behind Mechanicsburg’s struggle to consolidate its fire services are still opaque, the personal reasons are relatively clear.
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Neff was formerly the chief of Washington, and Boyd said the consolidation planning process has been “one-sided” toward the downtown company.
Trouble with the merger process accelerated in April when the borough hired Neff as fire chief.
“The timing was around the same time we appointed the fire chief, who was previously a member of Washington fire company,” Ciecierski said, adding both fire companies were involved in interviewing applicants and had a say in who was hired.
Neff said he was never told explicitly that Citizen’s did not support his hiring. But on Tuesday, a Citizen’s fire member presented the council with a signed letter from his son, a junior firefighter at Citizen’s, claiming that Neff had berated him with unnecessarily harsh reprimands.
Boyd said one of Citizen’s fire captains had “gone home and quit,” but later came back, after witnessing Neff’s alleged behavior.
“It’s a personnel matter, and it’s been resolved appropriately,” Ciecierski said. “I think it’s obvious what they’re trying to do here. They’re trying to play the press and the public.”
The borough has publicly stated other objections to Citizen’s operations. The company has missed calls, Neff said, which have to be covered by Washington.
“It hasn’t been frequent, but it has been documented several times,” Neff said.
The borough has also accused Citizen’s fire company of negotiating behind the borough’s back to merge with Upper Allen Fire Department, a charge that Boyd denies.
The derailing of the merger process also raises a financial question: The borough collects about $320,000 per year in fire taxes, according to its budget, but has little to show for it in terms of bringing together and updating the fire companies.
Ciecierski said the funds being withheld over the background check dispute are only operational and discretionary stipends. The borough is still paying for capital expenses, such as new truck tires. The fire tax also helps to cover insurance costs, fuel, maintenance of the firehouses, and more.
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Mechanicsburg’s case doesn’t exist in isolation. Last week, a state commission established to look at volunteer fire and EMS staffing issued its final report, which said the number of volunteer firefighters in the state has plummeted to 37,715, versus estimates of 300,000 plus volunteers in the 1970s.
The state’s recommendations, detailed in the report, mirror Mechanicsburg’s efforts. The state should support and incentivize efforts to consolidate and regionalize fire services, the report states, making it easier for municipalities to provide funding that, in many cases, can be used to hire paid firefighters to fill gaps in volunteer rosters.
The report also recommends that the state do more to fund and organize basic training and clearances for volunteer firefighters, including the stipulation that “background checks should be conducted on all first responders free of charge from the Pennsylvania State Police.”
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