With every public safety service in Menallen Township in flux, supervisors said they intend to charge a yearly fee to keep services afloat and residents safe.
Supervisors Joseph Petrucci and John Yantko, who conducted the meeting, proposed a $100 annual charge to property owners to fund a new building for New Salem Volunteer Fire Department and to pay for the cost of one full-time township police officer.
The money, supervisors said, would mainly go toward the mortgage for a public safety building to house a township officer and the VFD, after severe flooding last summer left the department’s 100-year-old building unsalvageable.
“Nothing is free, not even that volunteer fire department,” Petrucci told about 150 residents Thursday. “We have to face the music.”
Supervisors discussed their plan at their regular meeting, which was moved to the Keisterville Community Center after the board sent letters to 1,700 township residents about the charge.
The proposed public safety building comes at a $500,000 to $600,000 cost; a police officer would run the township about $75,000 yearly, officials said.
While some were angry about the proposal, Menallen Township resident Barry Mortichesky said he respects the supervisors for calling the meeting.
“Are you telling us what you’re going to do, or are you asking our opinion?” he asked.
“We’re telling you what we’re going to do,” Petrucci answered, prompting a brief outburst. “What we have to do.”
The decision comes as EMS and volunteer fire services throughout the state are struggling to stay afloat due to a declining number of volunteers and funding sources, combined with increasing equipment costs and training requirements.
A statewide report issued last year found fire and EMS services were in a “crisis” and proposed legislative changes to keep more ambulance services and fire departments from shuttering.
Supervisors said the public safety building may also include an ambulance bay, a move which comes little more than a month after Fayette EMS notified the township they will no longer be one of two ambulance services who respond to calls in Menallen.
Supervisors did not take questions regarding ambulance coverage on Thursday, saying they do not have answers right now and plan to meet with the Fayette EMS board of directors. They said they do not think anything has changed in terms of their ambulance service and that Fayette EMS and Southwest EMS are still providing dual response.
Mortichesky questioned whether the township needs a full-time officer, saying they have functioned for years without one.
Having an officer, said Petrucci, would exempt residents from paying an additional fee for state police coverage. Gov. Tom Wolf first proposed taxing residents who rely on full-time state police coverage in 2017. He reintroduced the proposal this year, suggesting residents be charged on a sliding scale based on the municipality’s population. Menallen Township has a population of about 4,200. Residents would pay $33 per person under the proposal, or $138,600 per year.
If the bill is passed, adding a local officer to patrol the streets 40 hours per week would cost 54% of what residents would pay for the police coverage they already have. State police and neighboring municipal departments would continue responding to calls in the township as backup or when the local officer is not working.
“We save all this money, and still have Pennsylvania state police,” resident Bill Kozlovich said, drawing some applause from the crowded room.
Yantko said the township would have an officer with a quick response time in the township during peak times 40 hours per week.
“We’re just trying to do what’s right here, what’s the best thing for everyone,” he said.
The location of the new fire department also spurred an argument. Supervisors said they could not find a building anywhere in the township to house the department, and chose to construct a new building near the township building, close to the center of the township. The fire department is currently on the southwest edge of the township in New Salem. Nearly all township residents would be within 5 miles of the new public safety building.
New Salem residents questioned why they had to pay for the fire department to move farther from their homes; Keisterville residents questioned why they couldn’t have a substation.
“We don’t want to divide the township like this,” Petrucci said. “We’re Menallen Township. We’re all one township.”
Petrucci said the fire department must move by the end of winter, ruling out the township’s ability to wait for potential grant money, he said. The old building must be demolished. They hope to secure a 10-year mortgage for the building and impose the tax at least for the duration of the mortgage.
“We’re not a perfect township, and we’re not perfect supervisors,” he said at the end of the meeting, drawing some sarcastic murmurs from the crowd. “But I’ll tell you this. We live and breathe to try the best we can all the time.”
While officials are still ironing out how exactly they would implement the fee, supervisors said they would appoint a five-person public safety authority to set and collect the money.
Petrucci said it seemed more equitable to impose a flat fee based on structures that a fire department would protect, instead of increasing the millage rate which would result in residents paying different amounts of money. The current proposal is to charge the $100 annual fee to every person who owns a parcel with a structure on it. Officials are still deciding whether a garage or other similar structure will require the fee. Paying per structure would mean the managers of Searights’ 67 apartments would pay $6,700 per year.