He never intended it to end this way, but South Baldwin Volunteer Fire President Chad Hurka watched the Baldwin Borough Council decide by a unanimous vote on Tuesday night to redraw the service area lines for its four fire departments.
Officially, the council voted to redistribute borough funding for those departments—starting Jan. 1—but that funding will be based on those new service areas, which must be drawn by Jan. 1, as well.
Hurka approached the Baldwin Council during an October 2011 borough meeting to ask for more municipal funds to operate his department more effectively. Since then, the council has gotten more and more serious about changing its fire funding practices, culminating with Tuesday's action.
"When I approached Council, I was asking for more money for all the fire companies," Hurka said. "The council decided not to go that way."
For the rest of 2012, the Baldwin Council will continue to provide an equal four-way annual split of $164,000 ($41,000 each) in borough funds to all four stations—South Baldwin, Option Independent Fire Company, Becks Run Volunteer Fire Department and Baldwin Independent Fire Company No. 1—but due to Tuesday's decision, that practice will be altered on Jan. 1 to one based on how many structures in the borough are actually closest to each station (service areas). In other words, more structures (a larger service area) mean more money.
Becks Run Fire, already with the smallest service area in Baldwin, could see its area shrink even more, which could make it extremely difficult to continue to operate, Becks Run Chief Len Novak said.
Becks Run could see borough funds of less than $2,000 annually under the borough's new fire plan if, as has been recommended, around 90 percent of its service area is sent to Baldwin Independent—its neighbor in the northern part of the borough.
Novak and Becks Run Treasurer Tom Linnert have argued that service areas become blurry in Baldwin at times and that municipal funding should not based on that.
"Just because of the number of homes (structures) you have doesn't mean that's the job you do," Novak said. "We protect north Baldwin and south Baldwin—all of it together."
Linnert said during an April 10 borough meeting, "If I go into a house and die on Willett Road or I die at one on Middle Street, it's still me dying. I still need the better equipment. I still need the same funding."
In February, Baldwin Borough Manager John Barrett explained why borough leaders began considering funding and service area changes for its fire stations.
"This past budget cycle, when there was a lot of discussion about (fire) departments wanting some more money," Barrett said, "it really got us thinking about, 'Is it really fair and equitable to take our contribution and cut it four ways when you have four departments of varying sizes responding to a much different number of calls (and that have) different responsibilities in their district?'"
Barrett said that borough officials took advantage of a free study offered by the Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development to come up with recommendations to change fire practices in Baldwin.
The result of that study was a recommendation that Baldwin should merge all of its fire stations—equipment, personnel, et al.—into one fire company, but Barrett said that borough officials are probably not going to go that far, instead perhaps ultimately settling on establishing just two companies—one for north Baldwin and the other for south Baldwin. But that is all still to be determined, as the borough's firefighters would have to iron that out.
"We still got all four companies," Hurka said on Tuesday. "It's not like any one of them has gone away yet, so there's still plenty of time to ... react to (the council's decision) and adapt."
When asked about possible mergers, especially between his company and Option Fire—its south Baldwin neighbor—Hurka said, "We always look forward to collaboration with the other fire companies, and if consolidation is in the works, that's just a different form of collaboration.
"It's definitely a topic for discussion in the future."
Novak said on Tuesday that Baldwin could be looking at a paid firefighters system—all four of its stations are currently run by volunteers—if it continues down the path of limited funding for some of its stations.
"(The council) jumped the gun," Novak said, "and they're going over the barrel. They're not caring about the residents and the volunteers that they already have.
"I guess they're gonna come out with money somehow to pay for paid firemen. That's the only way I can see this is going to happen."
No Baldwin council member has said publicly that a paid firefighters system is in the works.
Check back with the Baldwin-Whitehall Patch later on Wednesday for plenty more odds and ends from Tuesday night's council meeting.
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