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Jeannette firefighters campaign to keep their jobs

By Richard Gazarik
Tuesday, July 1, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
 

Jeannette's paid firefighters are mounting a public campaign to persuade city voters to reject a referendum in November that, if approved, would abolish the department and replace the paid firefighters with unpaid volunteers.

Capt. Mike Bertolino, president of Local 78 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said his local brought in reinforcements from fire departments in Pittsburgh, Altoona, Warren and even Virginia during the weekend to pass out information and solicit signatures on petitions. In addition, Jeannette has received help from neighboring volunteer departments in Greensburg, Hempfield and Penn Township, he said.

The petitions will be presented to city council on July 9.

Bertolino said the supporters have placed 200 yard signs throughout the city urging rejection of the referendum to be placed on the ballot for the general election on Nov. 4.

The lobbying campaign will continue this week, with advocates of the paid department going door to door.

Supporters plan to attend the July 9 council meeting to express opposition to the referendum.

“We should have a packed house,” Bertolino said.

Mayor Richard Jacobelli and Councilman Gabe Homan campaigned for office last year promising to explore the issue of whether the city could continue to afford employing paid firemen and paying on-call firemen as backup.

They were joined in voting for the measure by Councilman Mark Levander. Councilmen Bill Bedont and Mark Clark voted against it.

“I think it should be brought up before the voters,” Jacobelli said. “It's up to the voters to decide whether they want to pay for a fire department or not.”

He will hold a public meeting in October to discuss the referendum with residents and allow councilmen to explain their positions, explore the costs and explain the transition process.

Even if voters approve the referendum, the paid firemen will remain employed until their contact expires on Dec. 31, 2018.

“I'm very positive about this,” Jacobelli said. “I believe the vote will be very close, a lot closer than most people think.”

“I'm surprised that so many people from outside the city of Jeannette have taken a concern over this,” Homan said. “I just hope the information they're giving out is accurate.”

He said one resident called him and complained that firemen told her that fire insurance rates would increase if the city switches to volunteers. Homan explained at a June council meeting that rates will not increase.

“Some people call me and are willing to talk about it. Others call and just say, ‘Vote no,' and hang up,” Homan said.

In order to accomplish the transition, the city will have to increase funding for the pension fund from the current level of 55 percent to 70 percent. Once that level is achieved, Jeannette would have 10 years to fund the remaining 30 percent after the department is dissolved.

Jeannette has had a paid force for 125 years. Its current complement consists of Bertolino, Chief Joe Matijevic and Capt. Chuck Miller. They are backed by 26 on-call firemen who are paid for every call they respond to and for manning the fire station.

Council in June narrowly approved placing the referendum on the ballot. The department's budget for this year is $290,000, and its mandatory contribution to the pension fund is $89,000.

Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292 or at rgazarik@tribweb.com.

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