After 92 Years in Service, Supervisors Remove TTVFC From Dispatch List

Fire Ordinance: Overreach or Merely Accountability?

Company Covered 83% of Township

SEP 19 2022, 5:15pm

POCONO PINES (Tobyhanna Township) – In late August, the Tobyhanna Board of Supervisors adopted the controversial Fire Ordinance, which some say is a personally-motivated attack on the independence of the Tobyhanna Township Volunteer Fire Company (“TTVFC”), in retaliation for the political opposition by members of the fire company leadership. The supervisors deny that accusation and say it is a measure aimed at “accountability.”

Ed Tutrone, president of the fire company, thinks it is personal. “They don’t like me,” he told us.

Mr. Tutrone has politically opposed a number of the current supervisors over the years. In 2021, he unsuccessfully challenged supervisor Joe Colyer in the 2021 Republican primary. In 2020, he publicly questioned whether supervisor Brandon Carroll had filed the necessary proof of residency paperwork to qualify for his board seat. In 2019, he and fire chief Troy Counterman ran against board chair John Kerrick and supervisor Rachel Schickling for the Republican nominations.

In that campaign, both TTVFC members were highly critical of Mr. Kerrick. Among other things, they publicized rulings by the state ethics commission finding Mr. Kerrick guilty of ethics violations, including with respect to construction contracts allegedly benefiting his businesses. He was also found guilty of not disclosing all of his income sources on the annual financial disclosure forms, required from every elected official. Mr. Tutrone believes he lost his job with the township as a result of his political opposition to the supervisors.

For their part, the supervisors deny any personal retribution. They say they are looking for financial accountability from the volunteer companies, and to ensure that the first responders are adequately trained. At the same time, they have publicly conceded that they question neither the financial propriety nor the competency of the TTVFC.

Overview of Ordinance

The ordinance applies only to the fire companies that are officially designated by the supervisors as township fire companies. Until recently, the Township had two such companies – the TTVFC and the Pocono Summit Volunteer Fire Company.

Under the ordinance, the supervisors place themselves in control of numerous aspects of fire company operations. The regulation alters the relationship between the volunteer first responders and the township they protect.

The previously independent companies can no longer decide on their own what equipment will best serve the township needs, set their own budgets, decide on financing for equipment and other needs, enter into mutual aid agreements with nearby townships to help out where needed, or even participate in parades or other civic events.

All of those previously autonomous decisions now require the supervisor’s permission.

Significantly, the ordinance also requires that the fire companies turn ownership of vehicles and equipment over to the township. It makes an exception only for unidentified vehicles and equipment owned by the Pocono Summit Volunteer Fire Company. Supervisors say this is because the vehicles and equipment were purchased with taxpayer dollars.

The TTVFC notes that it is an independent, non-profit corporation charted by the commonwealth. Similar, they say, to the Clymer Library – financed with taxpayer dollars – which owns its own books, equipment, and assets as an independent non-profit corporation. They also point out that it was the taxpayers who authorized the grant of their money to the fire companies when they approved the fire tax.

In addition, to the apparent surprise of at least some of the supervisors, the TTVFC says that nearly sixty percent of its income comes from sources other than tax money. They say fire tax proceeds represent only 42% of their budget, with 44% coming from fundraising and community donations.
The ordinance also imposes training and financial standards, requirements, and conditions essentially taking over control of fire company operations. Under the new law, any fire company member who refuses to comply is threatened with imprisonment.

Most concerning to the TTVFC are the so-called “delinquency” provisions of the ordinance. They give the supervisors the authority to declare a fire company “delinquent,” pretty much on their say-so. That declaration would trigger the appointment of a board to take over all operations, at the company’s expense, until the supervisors decide the company is no longer delinquent.

Attempts at a Negotiated
Resolution Failed

According to Mr. Tutrone, there were numerous non-public meetings in which at least a quorum of supervisors and members of the fire companies attended. He told us that provisions of the ordinance were deliberated at those meetings – an apparent further violation of the state Sunshine Act.

Although the supervisors were told of the objections of his members to the proposal, Mr. Tutrone claims the board declined to adopt any of the significant changes they proposed. The supervisors knew that, if they adopted the proposed ordinance as written, the TTVFC would step down from its position as an officially-designated township fire company for the township, rather than bend to the supervisor’s demands to take over the property, equipment, and decision-making of the independent company.

In an August 12 letter released to the public by the fire company, the company’s attorney told the supervisors that, “the Tobyhanna Township Volunteer Fire Company fully intends to continue to provide fire protection services to the citizens of Tobyhanna Township and will always respond to a fire or other emergency when dispatched to do so. However, if the ordinance is adopted in its present form the Fire Company will not agree to operate as the officially recognized fire company for the Township.”
The only significant change in the ordinance as adopted was the elimination of a provision that gave the supervisors control over who could be a chief or assistant chief.

Why Now?

At the hearing on the fire ordinance, the supervisor’s solicitor read into the record only the last portion of that statement and was immediately chastised for the omissions by Fred Buck, the Philadelphia lawyer hired by the fire company in connection with this ordinance. After reading the complete sentence into the record, Attorney Buck then questioned the purpose of the ordinance.

Pointing out that the board of supervisors have affirmatively stated that they did not have any concerns about the competence, effectiveness, or economic viability of the Tobyhanna Township Volunteer Fire Company, Attorney Buck asked, “Why now?”

It was a question asked repeatedly during the hearing – and in the few months the matter was under consideration – and one which the supervisors never answered.

Attorney Buck said that the supervisors promised to provide a number of items in advance of any action, including a more detailed definition of what would constitute a “delinquency.”

“We never received anything,” he said at the public hearing. “The next thing we received was notice that this ordinance had been published without the more detailed definition.” Neither the supervisors nor the solicitor disputed Attorney Buck’s outline of the discussions, promises made, and promises broken.

“My question to the board is ‘what’s the rush?’” Attorney Buck said “The Tobyhanna Township Volunteer Fire Company has been providing services to this town for 92 years. Its been acknowledged by this board that their provision of fire protection services has been effective and efficient.” He asked the board to delay action on adoption of the ordinance and to continue discussing the provisions of concern to the TTVFC.

Following the attorney, Mr. Tutrone spoke on behalf of his fire company. “Tonight I am speaking on behalf of our entire company, not just myself,” he told the supervisors. “I don’t understand why this is rushed. You had a short-term rental ordinance that took almost four years. This was only four months. We are still willing to talk, you are not.”

The fire company president confirmed his attorney’s statement that when they last met with the supervisors, in one of those meetings at which the public was denied entry, the supervisors promised to amend the ordinance with a more precise definition of “delinquency.” “That never came,” he said.

“By passing this ordinance, you’re going to affect 83% of this township’s primary fire coverage,” he told supervisors. “ You’re taking millions of dollars of equipment, hundreds and hundreds of hours of training away from the residents of this township, to try to backfill with mutual aid, which is going to delay responses. You will be doing a disservice to the public by doing this.”

The township solicitor interrupted Mr. Tutrone to ask why the Pocono Summit fire company did not have a problem and they did. Mr. Tutrone declined to speak for that fire company, but Fire Chief Counterman was happy to answer the question.

‘You Can’t Be Trusted –
We’ve Been Lied to
and Lied to and Lied to!’

“The reason that you’re meeting with resistance from us is because these guys can’t be trusted,” Chief Counterman told the solicitor, indicating the supervisors. “Nor, for that matter, can you.” The chief said at the initial meeting the solicitor told them it wasn’t about taking over the equipment or companies, that they wanted to have dialogue. He characterized the board’s action – particularly in demanding ownership of the equipment and vehicles – as contrary to that initial promise.

“The bottom line is that there’s no reason to do this,” said Chief Counterman. “You can’t be trusted. You say one thing and then you do another on the other side of your face. I speak the truth, if you don’t want to hear it don’t ask me for it. The problem is you only want to hear one side of this. You want everything your way or nothing.”

“We’ve been lied to, and lied to, and lied to, for years and years and years. Most of us have been in this township 30 some years. We know who we’re dealing with. We know the reputation of the people we’re dealing with, and so does everybody watching or listening here tonight.”

With no other speakers, the hearing was then closed. The board of supervisors engaged in no discussion and did not deny any of the accusations or characterizations of their conduct related by the TTVFC attorney and officers.

Instead, 26 seconds after the hearing was closed, they unanimously passed a motion to adopt the measure.

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