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Blaine Hill VFC responds to social club concerns

Members of Blaine Hill Volunteer Fire Co. responded this week to a local business owner's recent threat to withhold his donation to the fire station over concerns about how the department is being run.

The response, read at a township workshop meeting Monday by Chuck Pershing on behalf of "the majority of the elected officers" of the fire station, characterized the organization as a "volunteer fire company with a social club that provides a place of refuge and social gathering for all of our members along with generating a stable source of revenue for the organization."

Earlier this month at a regular township meeting, automotive repair business owner Dave Striegel asked commissioners to look into ongoing differences between firefighters and officials involved with the fire department's revenue-generating bar. He also threatened to withhold his donations to the organization, which Striegel said amount to thousands of dollars every year.

In the response, Blaine Hill officials stressed the fire company does not use money donated to the organization to fund its bar. They did state, however, that "prior to 2011, there were many misallocations from our general account that would have made this appear to be the case" and alleged that financial managers at the time were trying to make it appear that donations were growing while the company's general account was going bankrupt.

Addressing concerns voiced at the earlier meeting that the fire company's serving alcohol is a liability, the statement said, "The liquor liability is not on the township, it is on the organization. We carry all the insurances needed to protect our volunteers, employees and business in addition to what the township provides for the firefighters."

The statement calls for stricter oversight on how township fire taxes are spent by fire companies, especially where it concerns major purchases. "There should be plans in place that show the purchase can be paid for and the organizations maintain adequate funding to survive."

The township has five fire companies and each receives $35,000 annually in the form of a fire tax from the township.

Blaine Hill and Buena Vista operate as independent VFCs.

The township's other three stations Blythedale, Central and Greenock share a unified command structure.

Blaine Hill firefighters opposed to the majority have expressed dissatisfaction with the direction of the fire company and, in a letter circulated earlier this year, called for a "separation of the firefighting force and the social club."

Commissioner Joanne Beckowitz has said township officials have talked for years about separating the bar and fire department in Blaine Hill and at the township's Buena Vista VFC, which is similarly structured, but have never acted on those discussions.

The group identifying itself as the majority said in their statement, "We believe we now have the organization headed in right direction. We also believe the vast majority of our firefighters are upstanding individuals. However, there is a small few that have caused the issues that we are and will continue to correct."

Township board of commissioners president Gene Francesconi said Friday the township hopes the rift in the fire company can be resolved internally.

"Yes, the board is going to be vigilant to make sure the township is protected from any sort of liability," Francesconi said. "But we're not going to tell them how to run their fire department."

Nevertheless, Francesconi said commissioners will continue to monitor the situation, adding, "Our concern is the safety of the community."

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