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Baldwin firefighters seek answers from council on potential major changes

| Wednesday, July 10, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Twelve members of Option Independent Fire Company stood firmly, in uniform, behind more than a dozen residents there to support them.

After weeks of reports circulating Baldwin Borough that municipal leaders had plans to consolidate or close the town's center most fire company, residents and fire company leaders approached Baldwin Council on Tuesday, asking what their plans are for Option Fire Company.

“I would like you to explain to me why you're closing down my fire department,” Beryl Drive resident Darlene Masten asked council members at their meeting on Tuesday at Leland Center.

A heated exchange between Baldwin officials, Option Independent Fire Company leaders and residents shed more light on the tensions in the town as borough leaders say they're looking at how best to configure the municipality's fire services to meet the needs of the community's 20,000 residents.

Council President David Depretis said officials will hold a public hearing to discuss the issue, likely within the next month.

Baldwin Borough officials long have discussed a consolidation between the municipality's fire companies, they said. The idea to merge fire companies – creating two stations, strategically located in the north and south ends of the borough – was quickened when two heads of Becks Run Independent Fire Company were charged with theft last year and borough officials voted to decertify the station, borough Manager John Barrett said.

“Can I ask you which one of those fireman told you they were closing their company?” Mayor Alexander Bennett asked residents Tuesday, pointing to a flier circulated by firefighters that he said is 95 percent false.

“We don't know what the future service at Baldwin is. Look what happened to Becks Run. We're trying to make the best service we can for our residents and that's our responsibility as council people. At this point and time we're not closing any fire company down,” Bennett added.

Baldwin officials last year filed a motion in Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Orphan's Division seeking a distribution of the assets from Becks Run, following its closure, to the borough's three other fire companies. In May, leaders from Option Independent filed a motion in court to merge assets with Becks Run, something Vice President Nancy Barylak said was prompted by Becks Run leaders.

“It was brought to us,” Barylak said.

“I don't understand that argument,” Barrett said. “We're talking about a department (where the chief) has plead guilty to felony charges that comes to you and says take our assets. I don't understand what's in the best interest of the borough, saying, ‘OK, we'll take them. Why wouldn't it be in the best interest of this borough to say, let's redistribute them to the three departments?”

Ultimately, what matters is what's best overall for the borough, officials said.

But likely, a lot will be decided in court, they said.

“We are currently in litigation,” solicitor Michael Lederman said. “There are many options are far as fire service in this borough and what we are always trying to do is provide the best service. We want to have the most coverage, the best coverage. There are no plans to ‘shut down' Option.”

Barrett said the talk, instead, has been about merging fire companies, “so that we can provide better service,” he said.

Tensions rose at meetings between chiefs of the borough's three remaining fire companies, both Barrett and Option Independent Chief Jim Barbour said.

Barrett said the tensions came because Option leaders initially agreed to divide assets from Becks Run with the other fire companies. Then, they filed a motion to claim Becks Run's assets, he said.

Borough officials, instead wanted to take Becks Run's assets, “put them in a restricted fund for fire service only and have the three departments left have use of those,” Barrett said.

Barylak said that borough leaders have made it clear through numerous meetings that they plan to build two new stations in Baldwin Borough, one in the south and one in the north. This means closing Option, she said.

Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or shacke@tribweb.com.

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