North Apollo’s volunteer fire department must again prove to residents that their services are worth the controversial fire fee that township officials say 60 percent of the residents don’t want to pay.
A standing-room-only crowd of more than 60 people overflowed from council chambers Monday night. The majority defended the volunteer department of about 15 to 20 active firefighters that responds to about 120 calls each year.
Council will discuss the issue more but urges department representatives to take their case to the public, starting with a newsletter on the benefits of the department to be sent with the next water and sewage bill.
Council will make a decision about the fate of the fire fee by March.
The annual fee, $40 to $50 for residents, is collected by the borough and turned over to the fire department. Borough officials audit the department and say they are satisfied with their financial records, according to Council President Don Acker.
But council continues to hear from residents dissatisfied with paying the fee, with wanting to see firefighters take to street corners to raise more money.
Recently, council directed a pair of residents to visit homes throughout the borough to see how residents viewed the fee.
They don’t want to pay it.
About 60 percent don’t want the fee, while 40 percent do, according to a survey, the validity of which was questioned by some at the meeting.
“There has been no decision,” Acker said. “We are looking at options.
“We have to figure out a way to figure out the best decision for the borough,” he said.
Council urged the fire department to actively promote its work to the public. They encouraged the fire department to do its own survey, even hosting a survey box at the borough building.
“You have to turn this around,” Acker said to Josh McKendree, assistant chief.
McKendree said his fire department’s meetings are public; they have been open to residents. However, the public and council have yet to attend any of those meetings, he added.
Acker vowed to attend the fire department’s Tuesday meeting.
Council Vice President Dana Baustert released some statistics from Armstrong County emergency services that showed North Apollo firefighters were slower to leave the fire station on the way to a call than their neighboring companies to calls in the borough.
Firefighters defended themselves, saying the statistics don’t necessarily reflect when they arrive at the scene and the fact they are all volunteer. The times cited were within seconds of each other.
Baustert said she wanted to stress that residents still will be safe with other fire companies responding.
Resident Christie Hepler said that she felt fortunate to have a local fire department. She said she will gladly pay the fee, “because I’m not the one getting up in the middle of the night to go put out a fire.”
Residents have paid the fee every year since 2013 to support the North Apollo Volunteer Fire Department. This is the second time in less than two years that North Apollo Council will consider eliminating the fee.
Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mary Ann at 724-226-4691, [email protected] or via Twitter @MaThomas_Trib.