New Jersey Firefighters Wanted a Beer Cooler for Christmas!
Firemen, auxiliary feud over funds, beer cooler
Home News Tribune Online 09/22/05
By ARIELLE LEVIN BECKER
PISCATAWAY, N.J. — The firefighters wanted a beer cooler for Christmas. The Ladies Auxiliary had other ideas.
"We were afraid if they drank at the firehouse and then got a fire call, they go out on those big trucks and can kill somebody or themselves," the auxiliary's treasurer, Rosemarie Picciuto, said, explaining why the women decided not to fulfill the firefighters' holiday gift request.
And although many members of the auxiliary are wives and other relatives of the company's firefighters, the women of the township's New Market Fire Company 1 Ladies Auxiliary said the incident was the start of a yearlong dispute with the fire company.
In July, after months of tension, members of the fire company voted to disband the 52-year-old Ladies Auxiliary. Weeks later, the auxiliary president returned to the firehouse and found the locks had been changed on the cabinets containing the auxiliary group's equipment.
Last week, the unit was notified by mail that entering the firehouse would be considered trespassing. Now, members of the Ladies Auxiliary say they've obtained an attorney and plan to continue meeting — away from the firehouse.
"It's bad, it's petty, that's what it is, and we're not going to tolerate it anymore," said Christina Buchek, the auxiliary's recording secretary.
But Joseph Youssouf, an attorney for the fire company, disputed the women's claims. He said the problems actually stemmed from concerns that the Ladies Auxiliary had failed to use the money it raised to benefit the fire company. A member of the fire department raised similar concerns in December, alleging the Ladies Auxiliary had not purchased gifts for the firefighters in three years but had bought clothing and parade uniforms for its own members.
Youssouf said the dispute could have been easily resolved had the Ladies Auxiliary given the fire company access to the group's financial records — something the women have repeatedly refused.
"As far as my client's concerned, the Ladies Auxiliary has been nothing but an impediment," he said.
Youssouf said he had not been told about the beer cooler and questioned its relevance. Using it to explain the conflict, he said, represented an unfair reversion to "the popular prejudice of volunteer firefighters as beer-swigging drunks."
Company Fire Chief Walter Siegrist III declined to comment.
Members of the Ladies Auxiliary acknowledged relations were tense with the fire company even before the beer-cooler incident. The fire chief would not call them to fires, where auxiliary units typically distribute food and water to relieve firefighters, Ladies Auxiliary President Jill Hospodar said. They were rarely invited to fundraisers, she said.
"It's been an ongoing thing," she said. "They just don't seem to think that they need us."
But Hospodar and other Ladies Auxiliary officials said things took a definite turn for the worse after the rejected beer-cooler request.
While the women had nixed the gift request in November, for safety reasons, she said, they explained it as a financial decision in an attempt to soften the blow.
"We were trying to be diplomatic," Picciuto said. "We were trying to say we didn't want them drunk."
The day after Christmas, the fire department sent the auxiliary a letter, placing the group's access to the firehouse on hold until they turned over their bank statements. In the letter, company Secretary Richard Prosuk Sr. wrote that the department believed the auxiliary had the money to purchase a beverage cooler.
"The body is concerned as to where the monies have gone, it sure hasn't been to help the fire company," he wrote.
The Ladies Auxiliary rejected that and subsequent requests for access to bank records. Members said they were not obligated to show their financial records because the group is independently incorporated.
But Youssouf questioned whether the auxiliary had used the money it raised properly.
"There are some serious questions that need to be answered," he said. "What is your function, what have you been doing, and why should you continue in existence if you're not doing what you're supposed to do?"
Members of the auxiliary said the organization had less than $5,000 and raised money through flea markets, a vendor night and other activities.
So far, some members of the 15-person auxiliary had taken leaves of absences or resigned, Buchek said.
And Youssouf, who represents several fire companies in the area, called the dispute the most drawn-out he'd ever seen.
"I've got to say, in 31 years of practicing law, this is unique where a ladies auxiliary is at loggerheads to this degree with a volunteer fire company," he said. "It's amazing."