Bethlehem Press

Monday, December 9, 2019

Tensions rise over fire co. cuts

Wednesday, August 22, 2012 by NATE JASTRZEMSKI njastrzemski@tnonline.com in Local News

Tempers flared in Borough Hall as council clashed with fire company representatives during an extended Aug. 14 meeting that several times devolved into passionate shouting matches.

The contention: Council is stripping the all-volunteer company of the few resources it has and needs to function.

The problem: The borough is in financial shambles and the small-town rumor mill keeps the resentment toward council at a low boil.

Council recently cut an annual $3,000 volunteer incentive payment to the fire company, lowered its payment for services from $35,000 to $20,000 and asked to use a small room firefighters use as an air-conditioned lounge.

Infuriated at what they described as disrespectful slights and a route toward the dissolution of the company, Mike, Mike Jr. and Buffy – the Micolochick bloc – each argued for respect and support of their years of volunteer service to their community.

Council member Donald Lasso, also a longtime volunteer, sided with the Micolochicks. They said the company lacks any space to grow into, proper equipment to fight fires in some areas and that fundraising efforts only manage to pay the bills.

Council member Rudy Gallich said the borough only receives so much money each year in taxes and is stretched to the limit. "Where's it gonna come from?" he asked.

The senior Micolochick shouted back, "Rudy, you oughtta be ashamed! The fire department helped this borough out and now you're spitting at us," he said in reference to long-ceased fundraising activities in the social hall.

Lasso explained applying for grants also requires firefighters to attain certain certifications which cost time and money.

The shouting increased about the perceived unequal treatment between borough employees and fire volunteers because of the necessity of hiring a new office worker and using the company's limited space.

When Micolochick Jr. told Borough Manager Judith Danko she and the others were welcome to eat their lunches in the garage with the volunteers, resident and former Council member Charlie Derr raised his voice from the audience. He asked why the company members appear with accusatory rumors regarding non-existent borough savings and are unfamiliar with how to read a budget.

Derr said the borough was owed about $300,000 in back taxes from residents from a number of sources and they are at fault for the lack of funds. Danko corrected him: It's actually about $500,000.

Derr exploded at the revelation. "You want to know why the fire department isn't getting any money? The citizens are screwing you!" he yelled.

After accusations that council has spent many years allowing citizens to ignore taxes, several parties explained the current effort to begin reclaiming those funds from countless business privilege taxes, earned income taxes, sewer and garbage payments that the borough has been unable to enforce until recently.

Danko said the borough had only asked to share the room because her own office, including the bathroom, is full of filing boxes. She said a desk must be shared, a constant stream of people and calls interrupt work and computers are failing. The new employee's sole job will be to collect taxes and allow Danko to focus on running the borough … and hopefully use the microwave in the break room.

When heads began to cool Danko said she appreciated everyone getting their thoughts into the open, because rumors could then be addressed.

Solicitor Larry Fox suggested to council the fire company be permitted a place on the agenda every meeting and that the company submit a monthly incident report like the police do to document its contribution to the borough – such as volunteering weekends to clear streets of fallen branches and trim trees so trucks can safely pass.

Mike Micolochick Sr. said, not yelling, "This is the best council meeting I've ever been to."

Council President Homer "Bud" Lorrah agreed. "Let's eliminate the bull and talking behind people's backs. Let's get you on the agenda."

The next meeting will begin early to discuss evolving enforcement methods of the business privilege tax. It will be open to the public and begin at 6 p.m. Sept. 11 at Borough Hall, 600 Monroe St.