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Friction with Hempfield firefighters hot campaign topic

| Tuesday, April 24, 2012, 11:25 a.m.

The relationship between Hempfield's volunteer firefighters and its board of supervisors has emerged as a major issue in the race for two board seats in the sprawling township of 41,000 residents.

Democrats Bob Schifano and John Henry are challenging Republicans Sherry Magretti Hamilton and Jerry Fagert for seats created by the primary election defeat of John Bossi and the retirement of Bob Davidson, both Republicans.

"It's an underlying issue," Hamilton said. "It may not be the bones of the issue, but it's certainly the backbone of the issue."

Schifano, 59, is a retired township road department employee. Henry, 57, is a homebuilder. Fagert, 51, works for the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and Hamilton, 34, is an attorney.

Schifano said firefighters are "unhappy with the lack of participation and consultation" from supervisors over issues that affect the operation of the township's 12 volunteer fire departments.

Schifano, a firefighter for four decades, pointed to the recovery efforts after the March 23 tornado that ripped through the township as an example of meddling by supervisors.

The board was criticized for taking an uneven approach to recovery efforts and for allegedly showing favoritism toward the Fort Allen area while ignoring the hard-hit West Hempfield and Adamsburg areas.

Henry, who decided not to seek re-election as a Hempfield Area school director, said supervisors have shown a "lack of respect" for firefighters. Supervisors "should at least get their input" before making decisions that affect fire department operations, he said.

Relations between firefighters and supervisors hit a low point in September when the board instituted rules to limit the type of salvage work firefighters can perform after an emergency call. The supervisors are concerned that insurance premiums for workers' compensation could increase if firefighters perform tasks that could cause injuries.

Last year, the supervisors were embroiled in a dispute with the West Point fire department over the volume of a siren that was drawing complaints from residents. Firefighters refused to lower the decibel level until the supervisors agreed to pay for a replacement siren.

Schifano said Hempfield, which covers 77 square miles, is too large for part-time township supervisors. He questions the need to employ a full-time manager and assistant manager.

"You can't run an $11 million business with part-time people," he said.

He questions why Township Manager Kurt Ferguson lives rent-free in a township-owned home and Mike Volpe, head of the road department, also lives in a home owned by the township.

"We're not in the real estate business," Schifano said. "Sell the houses."

Henry said the board should review administrators' compensation packages and perks. He also questions why the township provides homes for employees.

Henry favors seeking competitive bids for health insurance for township employees to ensure taxpayers are not overpaying. Getting bids or quotes on insurance saved the school district nearly $1 million a year during his tenure on the school board, he said.

"I don't think it's cost-effective," Henry said. "We have to do things to ... save tax dollars."

Fagert charged the township does not effectively respond to residents' complaints, even with the two full-time managers. Though Hempfield has undertaken several major stormwater projects, he said, the township has turned a deaf ear to other flooding complaints.

"We're still hearing complaints," Fagert said. "Their problems aren't being addressed. Some residents told us they are having issues that aren't being addressed or won't be addressed."

Henry said two decades in business and eight years as school director give him an advantage in the race.

"I'm the only candidate who has experience in land management, stormwater management and overseeing $80 million budgets," he said.

Even though Democrats hold a slight voter registration advantage in Hempfield, all five current board members are Republicans. Hamilton said voting has gone beyond party lines.

In recent elections, she said, it's Republicans who have turned out in force on Election Day.

"It's more about vision and electing the most qualified candidate," Hamilton said.

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