Divorce, Lower Saucon Style

Lower Saucon Township Council held its August 18, 2021, meeting in person again and to the surprise of virtually no one in the packed meeting room, voted to designate Lower Saucon Fire Rescue (LSFR) as the sole provider of fire services within the township, ending its relationship with Steel City Volunteer Fire Company.  The Council had requested Solicitor Lincoln Treadwell to prepare an ordinance to that effect following the July 21 meeting.

Because it was an ordinance, it was necessary to conduct an official hearing before the vote on the ordinance.  Scott Nocek, president of Steel City, rose to request that the Council delay the vote on the ordinance to the September 1 meeting. This was rather startling since the Council has been attempting to get Steel City to merge with LSFR since at least last summer, even adding footnotes to the township’s 2021 budget outlining criteria for each fire company to receive township funding in order to incentivize the merger.  After two meetings in a row where Steel City’s reluctance to? obstruction of? the merger had been outlined in detail, it wasn’t surprising that the question on the Council members’ minds, as well as I’m sure the bulk of the audience, seemed to be, “Why?  Why delay further?” 

It became clear that there had been a meeting of the two fire companies on August 3 to further discuss the merger.  Out of that came a request for Steel City to do some required paperwork to complete the merger.  But by the time of the August 18 meeting, the paperwork had still not been completed and submitted.   There then followed a long and often contentious discussion about who did or didn’t do what, by when, and why between Council members and Mr. Nocek.  There was reference back to an April 15 letter that Attorney Treadwell had sent to Steel City requesting information on some items that had appeared on Steel City’s 990 form that had still not received a response.  Mr. Nocek said he had the response with him that night and turned it over to Mr. Treadwell but that begged the question of why it took 4 months to produce the response.

Needless to say, nothing in the hearing changed anyone’s mind.  After closing the hearing, the Council voted unanimously to adopt the ordinance and LSFR became the township’s sole provider of fire services.

What followed was a discussion of how the 9-1-1 Center would be informed of the change in status even though the ordinance did not take effect for 10 days.  The Council authorized that a letter be sent informing them of the status change and that LSFR Chief Johnson make a call to the 9-1-1 Center immediately after the meeting, adding Fire Company 16 (LSFR) to the structured dispatch so there would be no lapse in coverage.

Once that was settled, there were a series of motions to deal with the new facts on the ground.  The Council approved funding a recruitment and retention event on September 18 (rain date: September 19) in Steel City to recruit firefighters for LSFR; to reimburse attorney’s fees associated with the merger and the review of the Steel City fire station building maintenance; to authorize the funding of capital improvements at LSFR fire stations and to authorize the release of payment number 2 for LSFR’s new ladder truck.  

At that point, with the business regarding the fire department concluded, the meeting room cleared out pretty quickly, from about 65-70 attendees to 19.

The Council proceeded to appoint two new members to the Lower Saucon Authority Board – Bob Davis and Bob Keich by a vote of 5-0.  Unlike in previous appointments, the resumes of the two candidates were included in the publicly posted council information.  It was nice to know something about their qualifications before their appointments.

The rest of the meeting was mostly housekeeping except for an interesting discussion of whether council meetings could be conducted in some type of hybrid format that would allow township residents to at least view and/or view and participate in regular council meetings remotely.  Ms. Huhn had prepared a packet of information on the types of systems used by other townships and boroughs.  Tom Rieger, Hellertown Borough Council president, was invited to share how Hellertown has implemented a hybrid system that allows both the livestreaming of their council meetings and the participation of remote attendees.  He reported it had cost them about $15,000 which could be covered by federal Covid relief funds.  Ms. Huhn was tasked with getting prices for a system similar to Hellertown’s.

Of course the best part of that discussion happened when Mr. Banonis, who waxed lyrical on the excitement and energy of so many residents at the meeting in person after the Covid shutdown, and who seemed to have quite a few other reasons why hybrid was somehow not as good as in person, mused as to whether the reason for so many attendees might have been the agenda for the evening (i.e. the fire company issues).  Yeah, do you think?  Since more than 70% of the attendees left after that was done with?  Mrs. Stauffer spoke up on the value of a hybrid model in reaching those who can’t make it to the council meetings in person, pointing out that it’s “not about us in the Council room” but rather about the township residents who might not be able to attend. There’s a thought that’s worth remembering at every council meeting.

Two More Items

The update to the Saucon Valley Partnership Comprehensive Plan will be voted on September 8 at 6 PM via a Zoom meeting. You can register for the meeting on the Township website through the Council web page. The updated plan can be found here: https://epd-pgh.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapJournal/index.html?appid=dfb95aee27934650b7a998bdaf170a44

Township resident Victoria Opthof-Cordaro raised a question during public comment about the status of the data breach investigation that had been mentioned at the July meeting.  Attorney Treadwell said that there was no more additional information to share at this time except that the township’s insurance company had verified that the costs of the law firm hired to deal with the breach would be covered. 

Watch this space.

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, September 1, 2021 – 6:30 PM at Town Hall

Next General Election – Tuesday, November 2, 2021

How to Fill a Township Council Meeting

Lower Saucon Township Council was back to meeting in person on Wednesday, July 21, 2021.  In fact, the meeting room was standing room only.  That was undoubtedly attributable to the agenda item to discuss the designation of Lower Saucon Fire Rescue (LSFR) as the sole fire services provider in the township.  The meeting turnout comprised not just township residents but also a large contingent of members of LSFR who stood throughout the discussion about the future of fire services.

First, a brief history of fire services in the township.  There were originally four fire companies.  Leithsville and Se-Wy-Co merged in 2012. Southeastern was then absorbed in 2016 and LSFR was formed.  In recent years, an attempt has been made to consolidate Steel City Fire Company and LSFR into a single entity.  The difficulties that have been encountered in finalizing that merger, mostly caused by Steel City, are what led to the matter under discussion at the July 21 meeting.

Ty Johnson, LSFR Fire Chief, reviewed the fire company’s annual report.  He reported that LSFR has 67 members, making it the largest volunteer fire company in Northampton County.  They are also the third busiest volunteer company in the county. The bulk of the report showed a well-run operation in good fiscal condition.  The values outlined spoke to its responsibility to the community and its training statistics showed a commitment to keeping its firefighters safe.

The surprising information came in a comparison between Steel City and LSFR relative to both call volume and response times.  This data comes from a state-maintained database.

CALL VOLUME

                        2020                2021 (to date of report)

LSFR                716   (90%)      315    (93%)

Steel City         77     (10%)      24      (7%)

AVERAGE RESPONSE TIME

                        2020                2021(to date of report)

LSFR                1.22 mins        .69 minutes

Steel City         17.14 mins      7.21 minutes

Chief Johnson explained that “average response time” represents the amount of time elapsed between the time that dispatch contacts the fire company to request their service until the first person from that fire company is on the road to the call.  

Not surprisingly, there was considerable discussion around the fact that LSFR is already providing the bulk of fire services for the township and the huge discrepancy in average response times to calls.  Council members also discussed what would be required to make the transition to LSFR as a sole provider.  Attorney Treadwell responded that it would require the drafting of an ordinance which could be voted on at the August 18 Council meeting.  There was consideration of what the logistics of that kind of transfer might be and whether or not Steel City would continue as a fire company.  It was clear that there are many issues to be resolved if the Council approves the ordinance to turn all fire services over to LSFR.

The only input from Steel City came from Kevin Kalman, Vice President of Steel City Fire Company and the Fire Police Captain.  He stated that he had been advised by the fire company’s counsel not to speak at the meeting but that he wanted to address the Council. He refuted some of the claims about Steel City’s responsiveness and objected to remarks that had been made about Steel City’s training and readiness.  He went on to commit to facilitating an orderly transition of fire services from Steel City to LSFR if that is what the Council decides on.  However, he also pointed out that he was only speaking as an individual, not representing the fire company.  

When Mr. Carocci raised a question about the $50,000 donation to Steel City that Attorney Treadwell had previously flagged as questionable and for which the Council has received no response, Mr. Kalman pointed out that he was not with the fire company at that time and then reverted to the stance that he couldn’t comment on that.

Following some additional comments and input from township residents, all of it supportive of the proposed ordinance, the Council voted unanimously to direct Attorney Treadwell to draft the appropriate ordinance to designate LSFR as the sole provider of fire services to the township.  It will be voted on at the August 18 council meeting.

In Other News . . .

All the other agenda items passed unanimously and were generally of a “housekeeping” nature.  The Council agreed to purchase an 8.9 acre parcel of land on E. Raders Lane with $422,500 from the Open Space Fund to preserve the space.  

There was one slightly jarring item.  The Township was apparently informed of a potential data security incident on July 9 and moved to engage counsel with specific expertise in these types of breaches.  That will bear watching.

Finally, the feral cat neutering program must be working well.  Council authorized additional funding for the program because of its already-high utilization rate.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The August 18 meeting will again be in person at Town Hall.  There are quite a few items on the agenda relative to the consolidation of fire services as well as the appointment of a replacement member to the Water Authority Board.  

See you there.

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, August 18, 2021 – 6:30 PM at Town Hall

Next General Election – Tuesday, November 2, 2021