WEST MIDDLESEX — As a demonstration of the trust that exists between Shenango Township and its fire department officials, township Supervisor Tom Hubert mentioned the helicopters.
“If they came to us and said, ‘We need a helicopter to drop water on fires,’” Hubert said Wednesday during a meeting of the West Middlesex-Shenango Township Fire Department Consolidation Steering Committee. “And they had a good reason ...”
Township Supervisor Carol Budanka quickly spun in her chair to face a trio of Shenango Township firefighters in the back of the room.
“No,” she said, to laughter throughout the room. “You’re not getting a helicopter.”
But Hubert made his point when he said that the township supervisors trust the township fire department to spend money responsibly.
“It would be refreshing to have that,” said steering committee member Ray Lucich, a West Middlesex firefighter.
Committee members invited officials from both municipalities to attend Wednesday’s meeting, and all five Shenango Township supervisors — including Hubert, the board chairman — turned out.
Only two West Middlesex officials, Mayor Jarrod Palmer and Councilwoman Melissa Calvert, attended the meeting, which didn’t go unnoticed by John DiCola, who is advising the steering committee on the merger process.
“I’m a little dismayed that more people from West Middlesex aren’t here,” DiCola said.
Adam Garrett, president of West Middlesex Volunteer Fire Department and a member of the steering committee, added, “Embarrassing.”
DiCola said the merger’s next phases would require input from officials in both municipalities.
With most organizational steps in the proposed merger between West Middlesex and Shenango Township fire departments completed, the process moves on to the complicated part — putting together two entities with vastly different financial and demographic profiles.
Shenango has a population roughly four and a half times that of West Middlesex. The township is, geographically, about 30 times as large as the borough, and has about four times as many improved properties.
Both communities have designated 3 mills in taxes for fire service, but DiCola said those figures raise wildly different amounts of money.
“That’s why it’s taking a little bit longer than some folks wish it would,” he said.
In a steering committee meeting this week, DiCola went through a list of required steps the group has taken since formal talks began in September. Those actions include the formation of a steering committee, which includes three members from both departments, and a by-laws committee to draft a new framing document for the merged department.
The merger is already in place in one aspect. When a fire breaks out in either Shenango Township or West Middlesex, both departments get called out and both departments often respond.
Now, said DiCola, comes the difficult part — sorting out the two departments’ assets, revenue streams and the amounts each municipality will contribute to the operation of a single fire agency.
Hubert said Shenango Township had purchased $1 million worth of equipment for the department. He said the merged department could use those items, but the township wouldn’t simply hand over the equipment, some of which isn’t fully paid for.
The ideal arrangement, he said, would involve a lease agreement.
Hubert said resolving the funding issues would probably incorporate a population-based plan, which would require Shenango Township to absorb most of the merged department’s expenses.
“I think that’s the fairest way of doing it,” he said.
DiCola said both of Hubert’s suggestions could be part of a final agreement.
Even though the borough’s input into Wednesday’s meeting was minimal, Shenango Township Supervisor Dale Perry said he thought West Middlesex council would eventually get involved in the merger process, and Calvert agreed.
“I don’t think there will be a problem getting together to meet with you guys,” Calvert said.
Hubert said he expected both departments — and both municipalities — would iron out their differences.
“Personalities have to be put aside for the good of the communities,” he said. “I don’t care where the fire trucks come from. I just don’t want anyone’s house to burn down.”
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