Fire sale: West Newton VFD sells hall
By Joe Napsha
Published: Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
West Newton Volunteer Fire Department is selling its fire hall and ballroom to a South Huntingdon businessman to get the department out of debt and provide money to operate, fire officials said.
“We are having financial trouble, so we are selling the whole building,” West Newton fire Chief Craig Sanner said last week.
Sanner declined to reveal how much the department still owes on the mortgage for the property, nor would he disclose the sale price of the 2.4-acre property at 100 Riverside Drive. He anticipates the deal will be completed in September.
The prospective buyer, Frank Szczerba, owner of Szczerba Excavating Inc., said he intends to convert the ballroom into an industrial park for businesses, But the fire department can lease the fire hall portion of the structure “for as long as they are in operation.”
“We intend to be here. We've been here for 106 years,” Sanner said.
The West Newton Fire Department, which has 18 to 20 members, has discussed signing a five-year lease with the new owner, at very favorable terms, Sanner said.
“It was dirt cheap,” Sanner said of the offer.
Szczerba declined to reveal the tentative sale price. “We're looking at it as an investment property,” he said.
Frank Wagner, fire company president, said he believes the department made the right decision.
“I think we got a good deal. We were in a bind and we wanted to get the bank off our backs,” he said.
The fire department bought the property, which included the metal building that houses the Youghiogheny Ballroom and fire hall, in July 1996 from Harry J. Knopp and P. Ben Stork for $127,398, according to documents in the Westmoreland County Recorder of Deeds.
Neither Wagner nor Sanner would discuss details of the fire company's finances.
Although the ballroom will be closed, Szczerba said he will honor arrangements for events booked there for the remainder of the year. Szczerba said he does not expect to begin work to convert the ballroom into an industrial site until January.
Both Sanner and Szczerba said it has been difficult to attract enough wedding receptions, showers, parties and fundraisers to make the ballroom operation profitable, or at least to break even.
“It used to be in the summer months; we were booked every weekend. It's become harder and harder” to attract events because of the competition, Sanner said.
Bingo and other fundraisers require work by the volunteer firefighters, who already are devoting their spare time to the fire department, Sanner said.
West Newton Borough provides financial support, paying the department's workers' compensation insurance, liability and property insurance, and phone bill, which total about $32,000 a year, said Pamela Humenik, borough secretary. The borough levies a $52 Emergency and Municipal Service tax on employees in the borough who earn more than $12,000 a year.
Mayor Mary Popovich, who sponsored a St. Patrick's Day fundraising event for the fire department, said she was not surprised by news of the prospective sale.
Much of the department's money has gone into operating and maintaining the ballroom. The firefighters would have to hold monthly fundraisers to continue to pay those expenses, she said.
“They can't sustain it. It's like being in quicksand. They're sinking every little bit,” Popovich said.
All fire companies struggle to raise money, said Greg Saunders, chief of the Bovard fire department and former president of the Fire Chiefs Association Westmoreland County.
“In my opinion, it's sometimes spending beyond your means and it's the cost of the equipment that's going sky-high. The money is just not there anymore,” Saunders said.
Its 100-foot ladder truck was repossessed recently by Commercial Bank & Trust because the fire department stopped making payments.
“It was either pay that (truck) or the building. That was our option out of a bad financial situation,” Sanner said.
The truck had been out of service because it needs costly repairs, Sanner said.
“Getting parts for it (a 1981 ladder truck), is next to impossible. They have to be custom made,” he said.
The truck was taken to the Pittsburgh Independent Auto Auction, a dealership-only auction business in Hempfield. An auto auction spokesman declined to comment on the listed price and said the owner sets the starting bid price.
Keith Visconti, a spokesman for Latrobe-based Commercial Bank, said the bank could not comment on its transactions with the fire department.
Sanner said the borough's safety is not endangered without the ladder truck. The fire department still has a 50-foot Tele-Squirt ladder truck and will continue to rely on assistance from the Rostraver Central and Webster departments for longer ladder trucks, he said.
The fire department plans to apply for a government grant to acquire a 75-foot ladder truck that costs between $400,000 and $500,000, Sanner said. That truck would replace the repossessed ladder truck and its 50-foot Tele-Squirt fire truck.
“If it wasn't for the grants, we would not be able to have this equipment,” Sanner said.
Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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