Each and every month the Public Safety Chairman has a list on the public safety committee agenda. It was redundant for most of 2013 and was brought to everyone’s attention at committee meetings and at each council meeting. However, the members of this department are not allowed to comment on these items. So the public and other council members are only hearing one side of the story.
Yes, that is correct! The majority of Fire Department members are not allowed to speak at Council meetings! This is because we are not residents or taxpayers of the Borough of Forest Hills. We can volunteer our time to protect and serve this community, we can put our lives on the line with every emergency we respond to, but we are not allowed to speak at council meetings. We can assure you that each and every member of this department is committed to serving this community. Even if we don’t actually reside in Forest Hills, we have some tie to Forest Hills that binds us here and makes us committed to the residents and this Borough.
Here are some of the items that have appeared council meeting agendas in 2013 with a detailed explanation.
Some time ago the Police and Fire departments came to an agreement for the use of the second floor of our building where there is weight and exercise equipment. This was done at a time when there were quite a few police officers that were fire fighters as well. The FD issued keys to each police officer to be able to use the equipment. As time went by, there were several issues that came up. The upstairs was being used and not being cleaned (garbage not being emptied, bathrooms not clean, equipment left out). There were people being brought in that were not police or fire personnel. Dog hair was found on the furniture. One of the police officers lost their key and never notified the fire department. The final blow came when the FD was told that a police officer was alleged to have a bacterial infection and was using the weight equipment seemingly putting others at risk to contract the infection. The decision was made to revoke the privilege. The Borough paid to have the whole facility cleaned and sanitized.
Now, after 7 years have passed, Council has decided that this needs to be an issue. However, 7 years ago, the agreement had nothing to do with council. It was an informal agreement between departments.
It should also be noted that before the police were told they could no longer work out here, the police association had presented council with the idea to use the Westinghouse Recreational Center basement for a work out facility. The police never received a reply after making a presentation at a council meeting.
The idea of the police working out here did not come from the police or police association. Mr. Tomasic went and asked 3 police officers out of 11 if they wanted to work out here. ( 3 are already members of the fire department and can work out)
The FD has a great relationship with the Police. We are not against revisiting this subject, however; we don’t feel the need to involve council.
In a recent conversation with a resident, the resident simply asked…”Do you have access to the police station?” Of course the answer is no.
Right to know
On April 3, 2013, our Vice President on behalf of the FHVFD submitted a right to know request to the Borough of Forest Hills. The information requested was a “delinquent list in full for calendar years 2012 and 2013 pertaining to the Fire Services Fee (ordinance 1015). The Borough granted the request in part and denied it in part. They provided the total amounts collected along with penalties for both years. They did not provide a list of unpaid accounts.
The FD subsequently appealed their decision as is our right by law to the Pennsylvania State Office of Open Records (OOR). The OOR found in favor of the FD in the appeal stating “release of the requested information would be pursuant to the Borough’s obligation under the RTKL to provide access to public records.”
The Borough did not agree. Through legal counsel they filed a “petition for judicial review” in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County on July 8, 2013. At that time, we felt it was necessary to hire an attorney to represent us. This is still pending in Common Pleas Court.
Recently, our hiring an attorney has been questioned and it has been indicated on more than one occasion that we should drop the suit. We would not have needed an attorney had the Borough complied with the rules and regulations of the Right to Know Law and the finding of the Office of Open Records. Once this was taken to Common Pleas Court, we really didn’t have any other choice but to defend our position through the use of an attorney. Interestingly enough, it would have been up to the Fire Department to pursue these records in court had they not been provided in a timely fashion. However, the Borough of Forest Hills filed a suit maintaining they don’t have to give these to us before that time had elapsed.
Since then, we have received several requests from the Public Safety Chair for information using the states Right to Know Law. These are under legal review. Several courts in Pennsylvania have ruled that Volunteer Fire Departments are not an agency of government but are their own separate entity considering they are a non-profit volunteer organization and the right to know law was put into effect to make government more transparent.
Pass Through Money
There seems to be some confusion of what this is. The pass through amount of $39,000 keeps being brought up. This is in reference to the Volunteer Fire Fighters Relief Association money that is distributed every year. This money is administered and distributed by Pennsylvania. It comes from foreign fire insurance money. The state collects this money from insurance companies that do business in Pennsylvania but are not headquartered in Pennsylvania. This money is regulated by the state and can only be used to purchase a limited list of items. State law requires that this money be sent to the municipalities and it be then turned over to the volunteer fire departments within 60 days. It is not a budget item that is given by the municipality to the fire departments it is strictly a pass through item. Each volunteer department receiving this money has a separate entity call a Relief Association. In our case it is the Forest Hills Volunteer Fire Fighters Relief Association. The Relief Association has its own tax id number and money is never mixed with any other money received by the department. Each department receiving this money is audited by a state auditor every two years. (see prior news article Jan 13, 2014)
In a July 19, 2013 memo, the FHVFD was notified that no one except the Chief was permitted to put fuel in any of our equipment. We could find no public record of any vote or discussion about this matter in committee or general Council meeting minutes or recordings. Previous to this any fire department officer or driver was putting fuel in vehicles as needed. A discussion ensued about the safety of residents with only the fuel being dispensed by the Chief. We were told that we had misunderstood this letter and that the Chief should supervise the filling up of the trucks. However we have never received any written communication that indicates this.
In February 2013, the FHVFD took possession of a used police Ford Explorer. Below is a copy of meeting minutes indicating a unanimous decision to make the trade.
Borough of Forest Hills Page 8 Public Session of Council February 20, 2013
PUBLIC SAFETY Mr. Tomasic
Motion: Move to approve transfer of the Ford Explorer to the Volunteer Fire Department in exchange for the mobile radio units to be used in the public works trucks with expected savings to the borough of approximately $4,500.
Moved: Mr. Tomasic
Second: Mr. Burleigh
Note: Chief Williams projects the trade in value of the Explorer at approximately $3,200. Roll Call Vote: Mr. Belmonte yes
Mr. Burleigh yes
Mr. Erbeldinger yes
Mr. Tomasic yes
Ms. Wood yes
Mr. Karas yes
At the same time we received the letter about the Chief only fueling vehicles, our gas card for this vehicle was revoked. It has been said (in council meetings) that this is considered a non-essential vehicle by council. There has also been an indication that the insurance on this vehicle could be dropped. The first intention for this vehicle when traded was to be used for transportation back and forth to classes for our firemen. It is easier to drive and more fuel efficient than our 1993 Ford F350 Pickup truck. The intention was to also be able to use it in emergencies for manpower and also to be able to get to places that may be inaccessible or difficult with a larger truck. Now it sits in our garage not being used.
Although we have told council representatives on numerous occasions that we are no longer in talks to merge with Braddock Hills, they keep insisting we send a letter to this affect. And if you listen to council meeting recordings it has gone from a letter just saying we are not merging to a letter saying we will not merge with anyone without councils approval. Once again we are a separate entity and the concept of mergers in the fire service is becoming more common place
We were questioned about mutual aid several times. We maintain that there is a State Mutual Aid agreement and this covers us. This bill was sponsored by Paul Costa. However, council has continued to question the concept of mutual aid and question where we go and who provides mutual aid to us. Mutual aid is used throughout the fire, police and ambulance services. This department has never solicited any organization or other department to add us as their mutual aid company. When dealing with mutual aid companies coming to Forest Hills, we do what is safest for our members and what best serves the community.
We are assuming this is in reference to the information we have been putting out to you, the public. We have stated the facts and can show you the proof. How does that translate into misinformation?
The only thing that the FHVFD is guilty of is trying to make ourselves stronger and perhaps being a leader in future mergers, consolidations, or whatever you want to call them. Could things have been done a little differently? Absolutely, but on both sides. We have resolved our side.
We ask “Does the retribution and punishment fit the “alleged crime”?