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Fire department files suit against Plum councilman Nowalk

| Wednesday, July 10, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Lillian DeDomenic | For The Plum Advance Leader
The site of the former Plum Daily Grind restaurant on Route 286 in Plum.
Lillian DeDomenic | For The Plum Advance Leader
The site of the former Plum Daily Grind restaurant on Route 286 in Plum.

A Plum councilman is accused in court of not paying rent to a borough fire department, a portion of which was money the department says it spent on renovations to the space. The Holiday Park Volunteer Fire Department has sued Councilman Keith Nowalk seeking $196,536 for what it contends is his failure to pay rent on a building owned by and next door to the fire department on Route 286 in Plum.

Nowalk's business was a coffee house and pizzeria.

Nowalk, 49, a borough councilman who this November is seeking re-election to a four-year term, at the end of April closed the Plum Daily Grind after he said he wasn't able to pay the rent — about $2,800 a month — for the first four months of the year.

Nowalk said he plans to answer the complaint.

He and his lawyer, James Nowalk, declined further comment.

The fire department sent Nowalk, a member of council's finance committee, a lease termination letter dated April 16, fire department President Robin Schuster has said.

The Penn Hills Daily Grind on Saltsburg Road, a satellite location, also closed. Nowalk had signed a 10-year lease with the fire company that expired in December 2019.

The building, described in the complaint as 2,350-square feet, is next door to the fire department on Route 286. The Plum Daily Grind had been a tenant for about three years. The space previously had been home to an Amish furniture store.

Hilary Taylor, attorney for the fire department, wrote in the complaint dated May 22 in the civil division of Allegheny County Common Pleas Court that the amount sought represents unpaid rent of $10,540 through April 30, accelerated rent of $179,180 from May 1 through Dec. 22, 2019 — the end of the 10-year lease, $7,500 in attorney fees and $316.20 in late fees.

Taylor said the lease provides for the fire department to seek the rent for the balance of the term of the lease if Nowalk defaulted on the rent.

She also said the monthly rent included money the fire department spent on renovations for the building prior to Nowalk opening the business in 2010.

“This lease was structured to lend Mr. Nowalk some money for renovations on the building to equip the business,” Taylor said. “The rent included repayment for funds provided by the fire department.”

Taylor said the amount of money the fire department spent on the renovations was “significant.”

Taylor said she didn't know the exact amount of money spent on the renovations.

Schuster could not be reached for comment.

The fire department is funded by borough and state money, solicitations and fundraisers.

Plum Manager Michael Thomas said the borough this year gave each of the four fire departments a stipend of $37,852, according to its contract with the Plum Fire Chiefs Association.

According to the complaint, the fire department performed the following improvements to the building that Nowalk's business occupied: ceiling and flooring renovations; electrical work; heating and air conditioning units, plumbing and bathrooms; exhaust system and exterior work.

Nowalk previously said he spent about $250,000 on renovations to the building.

The complaint also alleges that Nowalk in the course of moving his business out of the space “removed or caused to be removed interior decorations, improvements, equipment and fixtures, and caused significant damage to the premises.”

Taylor said the fire department contends Nowalk auctioned items from the Plum Daily Grind that were “fixtures” and under state law were to “remain on the property.”

Taylor said Nowalk removed items including an exhaust fan that was attached to the building, “causing large holes on the side of the building.”

The attorney said the fire department has secured the building, boarded up the holes and plans to get an estimate for the damages to the building. Taylor said the department might file a separate action against Nowalk for the damages.

Taylor said the fire department is “evaluating its options” with respect to trying to collect the $196,536 from Nowalk.

The fire department, one of four in Plum, has about 40 active volunteers and answered 838 calls in 2012, an increase from 696 in 2011, according to the website.

The department reported net assets of $2.3 million, according to its 990 tax forms filed with the federal government each in 2010 and 2011.

The department also in 2011 reported $43,732 in gross income from interest, dividends, payments received on securities, loans, rents, royalties and income from similar sources.

The fire department reported $32,690 in the category in 2010.

Karen Zapf is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400 ext. 8753 or kzapf@tribweb.com.

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