Delmont firefighters say criticism from council hurts fundraising, recruitment
Delmont firefighters say an ongoing rift between the department and borough council has stymied fundraising and recruitment efforts.
“It’s completely unnecessary, but they keep bashing our fire department,” said Rich Balik, Delmont fire chief. “We’ve been trying to build this department back up for two years after the past problems … and (council) keeps bringing up the past, and it’s hurting us.”
The department provides coverage for 2,500 people and a portion of Route 66. It survives on community donations and fundraisers such as raffles, fire hall rentals and bingo events, said Balik and Bill Walk, a fire department captain and trustee.
“We usually raise $8,000 to $10,000 on the two or three gun bashes a year we hold,” said Balik, noting the one on Aug. 24 raised just $2,500.
Walk said council has not allocated any tax money to fire department operations in recent years. A request to institute a fire tax was rebuffed by council.
Council designates several thousand dollars a year from its local service tax to the fire department, council president Andrew Shissler said. The borough paid $8,575 to cover worker’s compensation insurance for firefighters, council Vice President Bill Marx said. That payment is required by state law.
In light of mismanagement allegations levied in 2018 against four former fire department officers charged with theft, the community and council deserve more transparency from the department, Marx said. Shissler also thinks more transparency is needed concerning fire department operations.
Former fire Chief Logan Clark, 36; his wife, Heather Clark, 36; former fire department treasurer Jason G. Thomas, 38; and Timothy Bucciarelli, 61, have denied that they used department funds for personal benefit and are awaiting trial. A review of nearly four years of department finances led to allegations that the group misspent $60,000, according to court documents.
The accused have since been replaced in the department, and no one currently with the department is accused in the case.
Also in 2018, the borough’s longtime secretary-treasurer was accused of spending nearly $44,000 of taxpayers’ money on personal expenses. Karen Shola, 68, of Pittsburgh, pleaded guilty in May and repaid $40,000 at that time.
In recent weeks, a post on a Delmont community social media site raised the volunteers’ ire. It questioned the volume on the decades-old fire siren outside the station off Route 66 and the duration of alarms.
Marx confirmed he posted the message that also linked to an Oct. 10 Tribune-Review article about Hempfield residents’ similar concerns over the decibel level of the siren at the West Point Volunteer Fire Department.
“It’s been an issue brought before council before, and I posted it hoping to start a community discussion,” Marx said. “If they’re paranoid about it, so be it.”
Marx, who lives within earshot of the siren, said firefighters often do not immediately respond to the station, causing the blaring siren to repeat a three-minute cycle. There is available technology to remedy the problem, he said.
A year ago, Marx published an article in an area weekly newspaper saying fire department leaders refused council’s efforts to document how the department maintains its equipment and trains firefighters and to divulge its financial records.
“They also do not even attend council’s public safety meetings,” he said.
“We have about 17 active members, and we all have jobs,” Balik said. “Council has these meetings at 9 a.m. I’ve asked them to move it to night, but they won’t.”
Shissler said he doesn’t think council is “picking” on the fire department.
“We have received several complaints from residents about the siren … that it is too loud and continues too long and have spoken with the (the fire department) about that issue,” Shissler said.
Based on complaints about the siren, Balik said he looked into the issue and found replacing the controller would cost “about $5,000.” He said the siren is supposed to automatically turn off after four minutes, but residents allege the repeat cycle often continues much longer.
“The new equipment would reduce the time cycle, but not the decibel level,” Balik said.
Such an expense isn’t a priority, he said.
“We just don’t have the money for that,” Balik said. “We’ve got to pay our utility bills. Our rescue truck has to be certified… That will be over $3,500 with repairs.”
Don Cline, first assistant chief and department president, agreed there is not enough money for the siren when there are “more vital” equipment and vehicle needs.
“We don’t have that kind of money. Our newest ladder truck is from 1993,” Cline said.
Balik said department officials and borough council met last year to try to resolve issues.
“I was hoping … we could have moved on, but (council) hasn’t,” he lamented.
Paul Peirce is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-850-2860, [email protected] or via Twitter .