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

A Few Answers Generate More Questions

The June 16 meeting of the Lower Saucon Township Council provided some answers to the questions raised on this blog about the funding for Lower Saucon Fire Rescue (LSFR) and the Steel City Fire Company. It also raised some other, more disturbing questions about the proposed merger.

To briefly recap, by a 3-2 vote last year (Ms.Yerger, Mr. Banonis and Mr. Carocci in favor), a footnote was added to the 2021 township budget that required the completed merger of Lower Saucon Fire Rescue and Steel City Fire Company by April 1, 2021, in order for the fire companies to receive their regular contributions from the Township, $150,000 for LSFR and $50,000 for Steel City. Failure to meet that date would trigger a series of additional deadlines with stepped-down funding culminating in cancellation of all funding if the merger was not completed by June 1. Despite requests from Mrs. Stauffer in the Spring, no information on progress on the situation was shared with the exception of a “no progress” comment from Solicitor Treadwell at the April 7 meeting. At the June 16 meeting, Mr. Carocci made a motion to fully fund LSFR for the budgeted $150,000. In discussion on the motion, he shared the timeline of the attempts to complete the merger on the part of each of the fire companies. To make a long story short, LSFR has repeatedly attempted to move the merger forward while Steel City has repeatedly rebuffed actions to make progress. As of the end of March, Steel City had only been willing to agree to a merger of operations but wanted to postpone the legal merger for at least another 1-2 years. Based on that information, the Council voted 5-0 to approve funding only for LSFR for 2021.

Mr. Carocci then provided additional information regarding the future of the merger. In reviewing Steel City’s IRS Form 990, Solicitor Treadwell noticed an unusually large donation to Steel City of $50,000 from The Boston Foundation, a donor-advised fund, followed by a transfer of $40,000 from the fire company to an injured officer who lives in New Jersey. Because of the unusual nature of the transactions, Solicitor Treadwell contacted counsel for the Steel City Fire Company with a host of questions regarding the transaction. The response from the fire company’s counsel had been received only late on the afternoon of the Council meeting and had provided insufficient information to answer the questions raised.

So we now have an answer as to whether Lower Saucon Council is going to fund LSFR (yes – 100%) or Steel City (not as of this moment) and we have some better understanding of why they made that decision. All good. But along the way, there are new questions.

Obviously the largest one is what to do about the proposed merger? Since further discussion on LSFR’s role in the Township is on the agenda for the July 21 meeting, we can expect to hear more about that shortly.

Mrs. deLeon raised the question of why Solicitor Treadwell had not shared the letter he wrote to Steel City’s counsel with the LST Council. She indicated that he should have copied the council members. Mr. Treadwell pointed out that he had been tasked with participating in the merger negotiations and this was part of the due diligence that he was conducting. He also pointed out that if he copied council members on every piece of correspondence that he produced, that they would be inundated. While he apologized for not sharing the letter, I think that instead the Council owed him a big thank you for his thoroughness in scrutinizing Steel City’s 990. He caught something that could be a major liability for a merged fire department and that raises legitimate questions about how Steel City handled the entire transaction.

The bigger question that should be raised beyond Mrs. deLeon’s concern is why there was no reporting on the status of the merger at all from January till June. The detailed timeline Mr. Carocci provided showed that there had been actions that had been taken over that time period, but none of that was reported. When Mrs. Stauffer appropriately raised the question in April, there was no sharing of the status of the negotiations which at that time apparently were already fraught. And although Mr. Carocci apologized profusely for not providing any of the information that he referenced at the June 16 meeting in time for it to be included in the council packets or on the website, the fact is that it shouldn’t have taken until June 16 for that information to be compiled. Where was a report at the March Council meeting or the April one or the May one? Mr. Carocci is the liaison to the fire companies. Why couldn’t he have provided something sooner? Is this his definition of transparency?

Moving on . . .

Natasha Manbeck of McMahon Associates provided a status report on the draft of the Active Transportation Plan being developed as part of the WalkWorks Grant. She acknowledged the contributions of many LST residents and indicated that the Draft will be presented in August for public comment. Anyone with comments in the meantime can send them to Diane Palek, the Township’s administrative assistant (adminasst@lowersaucontownship.org).

Frank Thompson of the Parks & Rec Board presented Logan Kade’s proposed Eagle Scout project to construct an information kiosk at Heller Homestead Park to the Council. The Council approved the project, 5-0.

Bill Ross of the Lower Saucon Authority gave a detailed explanation of Senate Bill No. 597, requesting that Council submit a letter opposing the bill. He explained that it places additional onerous requirements on public water authorities in the state (including Lower Saucon’s) that are unnecessary to guarantee the quality of water and will make the public authorities vulnerable to takeover by private entities. The Council agreed to provide such a letter, 5-0. Mr. Ross encouraged anyone who was listening to contact their state senators and voice their opposition to the bill as well.

And of course it wouldn’t be a LST Council meeting if there weren’t gratuitous swipes at fellow Council members and attempts to impugn their integrity. In the discussion about the bids received from Keystone Collections and Berkheimer to provide tax collection services to the Township, Mrs. deLeon raised a question about the fact that Keystone (which had the lower bid) had also requested space in Seidersville Hall for an in-township office whereas Berkheimer did not. Her concern was whether the two bids therefore represent an apples-to-apples comparison and whether, if Keystone were awarded the contract, would they be paying for their use of the space? A reasonable question.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Mr. Banonis, however, had to jump in to point out that perhaps Mrs. deLeon had other reasons for raising the questions because doesn’t Mrs. deLeon’s sister work for Berkheimer? The implication was that this was suspicious. Mrs. deLeon then tossed the question to Solicitor Treadwell, asking if there was a conflict here. Attorney Treadwell’s response was “not technically under the Ethics Code.” But Mr. Banonis just couldn’t let it rest. According to the minutes, he hastened to assure us before he made the motion to approve the bid from Keystone that “he doesn’t have any immediate family members that work for Keystone, he has no parents, no children, he doesn’t think he has any siblings as he’s an only child, he doesn’t have any aunts, cousins or uncles who work for either Berkheimer or Keystone” so he could make the motion in good conscience and with a clear mind. Mrs. Yerger, not to be outdone in gratuitous snark, then seconded “based on the fact that she has no relatives working for either Keystone or Berkheimer.” Come on, what is this? Fifth grade? Nyah-nyah, nyah-nyah, nyah, nyah. Or maybe it’s an attempt at humor. If so, don’t give up your day job.

Finally, and most importantly for those of us who love spending our time attending these meetings so you, Gentle Reader, don’t have to (although you should), the Council decided to return to live, in-person meetings starting with the next one scheduled for Wednesday, July 21. If you’re planning to attend, be prepared to show up at Town Hall at 6:30 PM.

Next Township Council Meeting – Wednesday, July 21, 2021 – 6:30 PM AT TOWN HALL

Next General Election – Tuesday, November 2, 2021