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Jeannette council rejects referendum on switch to volunteer fire department

| Wednesday, July 9, 2014, 11:00 p.m.
Austin Bachand | Tribune-Review
Capt. Mike Bertolino, president of Local 78 of the International Association of Fire Fighters holds up a petition to reject a referendum that would have replaced Jeannette’s firefighters with unpaid volunteers in Jeanette’s City Hall on Wednesday, July 9, 2014. The council members voted no on the referendum Wednesday afternoon.
Austin Bachand | Tribune-Review
Jeannette’s City council members Bill Bedont, Mayor Richard Jacobelli, Mark Levander and Gabriel Homan discuss voting on a referendum to replace Jeannette’s firefighters with unpaid volunteers during the city council meeting in Jeannette’s City Hall on Wednesday, July 9, 2014. The final result ended 3-2 in favor of voting against the referendum.
Austin Bachand | Tribune-Review
Those in attendance at Jeannette’s City Hall for their city council meeting, on Wednesday, July 9, 14, raise their hands to show support for voting against a referendum that would have replaced Jeannette’s firefighters with unpaid volunteers. The city council members voted against the referendum.

Jeannette's career firemen still have a career.

City Council did an about-face Wednesday night and rejected a proposed ordinance that would have allowed voters to decide in November whether they wanted to retain the city's three-man paid fire department or rely on volunteers to protect the city in the future.

Councilman Mark Levander, who voted for the ordinance last month, voted against the measure much to the delight of the audience that was filled with residents and union firefighters from as far away as Charleston, W.Va., said Capt. Mike Bertolino, president of Local 78 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. Firefighters from Allegheny, Westmoreland, Mercer, Washington, Butler and Cambria counties also attended the meeting to support Jeannette firemen.

The first reading of the ordinance passed last month by a 3-2 vote. If the measure had passed the second vote, the future of the paid fire department would have been decided by voters in the November election in a referendum.

Rejection means the issue is dead.

In addition to Levander, councilmen Bill Bedont and Mark Clark opposed the ordinance. Mayor Richard Jacobelli and Councilman Gabe Homan voted for it.

Before the vote, Bertolino presented council with a 1,200-name petition from residents asking council to reject the measure.

“Levander wanted the public to make the decision and I think the 1,200 names we got were the votes he was looking for,” Bertolino said.

Bertolino told Jacobelli there was little support among residents to switch to an all-volunteer force.

“Your neighbors voted for a paid fire department and your relatives voted for a paid fire department,” Bertolino said.

“It comes down to cost,” Jacobelli said. “Can the city afford what we have? Come up with one idea how we can finance this. I want a paid fire department. Show me how to pay for it.”

Homan said it will be harder to maintain the force in the future as salaries, benefits and pension costs continue to increase along with operating costs. He said switching to volunteer firemen would have saved the city between $200,000 and $250,000, but Councilman Bill Bedont disputed the figure calculating the savings at less than $100,000.

Ryan Highlands, a paramedic with Jeannette EMS, said the ambulance service relies on the firemen to help on calls, particularly on cardiac incidents. A quick response time can be the difference between life and death, he said.

“It's a bad idea to get rid of your fire department,” Highlands said. “People will die.”

Bertolino said career firefighters, who man the station each day, can respond to a call within three or four minutes compared to 15 minutes for volunteers.

“You're going to lose response times,” he said.

Homan and Jacobelli campaigned for office last year on the issue that they would consider abolishing a paid fire department because of the city's financial condition. They said residents they talked to favored abolishing it, but the crowd in attendance last night clearly supported the firemen.

“After 100 years of having a paid fire department, I don't think it's undemocratic or unfair to let people go the way they want to go,” Homan said. “If this is what people want, we'll have to find other avenues (to cut costs),” he said. “I'm just trying to give everyone a choice.”

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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