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Uniontown tries to balance safety, finances

| Thursday, Sept. 2, 2010

Council continues to struggle with balancing the city's financial stability and protecting the safety of its citizens while it works to make a decision on whether Uniontown can afford a paid fire department, Mayor Ed Fike said.

"We've been hearing a lot of 'he said, she said' right now over the fire department issues," Fike told residents at council's Wednesday meeting.

Last week, council notified the firefighters union that all the paid firefighters will be laid off before the end of the year. The city said it plans to create a volunteer fire department to take over their duties.

The announcement was made the day before the city and the union met with an arbitrator in an effort to negotiate a contract. The three-year contract will expire at the end of the year.

The city dropped seven of its 13 paid firefighters and dozens of other employees in two rounds of layoffs in 2008 and 2009 when the new administration discovered that it had inherited more than $1 million in debt.

In March 2009, council recalled seven laid-off firefighters but furloughed them again in December. Since then, one firefighter retired and seven were recalled to work.

Uniontown is operating with full-time firefighters, which means two of them cover each shift. Because of the manpower shortage, Coldren said, the city was forced to pay overtime when some of the firefighters worked 36 hours in a row.

Fike said council members agree that the fire department has been doing an excellent job of protecting the city.

"No one is disputing the fact that the fire department is doing a very good job," Fike said. "I'm very offended that some people think I'm trying to hurt someone. That's just not the truth."

City Council President Philip Michael agreed with the mayor.

"No one is out to hurt anybody," Michael said. "We have good intentions for the city. We have a great group of city council members, and we deserve respect. As a member of council, I value the fire services. We want to work to keep the services financially feasible while we remain morally responsible to the people that we have to protect."

Fire Chief Charles Coldren said city and fire department officials have been trying diligently to work through their problems.

"The stress level on both sides of the table remains extremely high," Coldren said. "The firefighters are concerned about being laid off. They need the paychecks for their families. Hopefully, we can get this situation resolved as soon as possible."

Coldren said he will continue to check on the status of the grant.

Councilman Gary Gearing has said the city will lose a $632,835 federal grant it received in May to recall the laid-off firefighters if council does not accept the money by Sept. 30.

"I plan to keep on top of the status of the grant while we try to work out these problems," Coldren said.

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