Pennsylvania Fire Truck Stuck in Debt

Four municipalities have told the embattled Port Matilda Fire Company it has until the end of this month to get rid of its debt-laden fire truck or risk losing their financial support.

Representatives of Huston, Taylor, Worth townships and Port Matilda borough met earlier this month and issued a statement that, due to the fire company's debt load and the municipalities' financial limitations, "We will not consider any further monetary support of the Port Matilda Fire Company after Dec. 31, 2004, as long as the Port Matilda Fire Company retains ownership of the red 1510 fire truck."

The fire engine, the cornerstone of the company's four-vehicle fleet, has been at the center of the fight to save the fire company from its rocky financial state. This summer, the engine came close to repossession after the company fell nine months behind in payments on the truck.

Contributions staved off repossession, but the fire company is lobbying the municipalities it serves to increase the amount of money they are contributing to the fire company. The four municipalities and Halfmoon Township were paying $38,000 of the fire company's approximately $125,000 budget, with the rest of the money coming from other sources, such as fund raising.

Jim Andrews, a Halfmoon Township supervisor and member of the task force examining fire protection in the Upper Bald Eagle Region, said Tuesday that, in his opinion, the fire company's problems are unsolvable.

"We cannot bail this company out because they have no financial records," Andrews said.

"Without financial records, we can't get grants and loans."

Andrews formerly headed a partnership created about 10 years ago by the municipalities served by Port Matilda Fire Company to manage the money they contribute to the fire company. Several years ago, Andrews said, the partnership stepped in and saved the company from impending bankruptcy.

Less than three months later, he said, the fire company "bought the fire truck at an 18.3 percent interest rate with no early payoff. So even if they get rid of it, they're still stuck with the debt."

Taylor Township Supervisors Chairman Richard Beckwith called the engine "a thorn in our side."

Beckwith also pointed to the steep interest rate and the company's seeming lack of interest in getting its financial house in order as two of its main problems. Beckwith said the fire company has made interest payments on the fire truck, but hasn't touched the principal.

As part of their contractual agreements, Taylor and the other municipalities agreed to make payments on the company's building and other equipment.

Nowhere, he said, did their contracts say anything about Engine 1510.

"If you went out and got a credit card and spent it out and got another one and spent it out, would you be happy if someone in your house was doing that?" Beckwith said. "We're talking about the same thing. They are in debt so far and the municipalities can't afford to bring them out of it."

Jadine Reese, secretary/ treasurer of Worth Township, said the engine loan is a "millstone around their necks" and the fire company has made no move to get rid of it.

The partnership decided to take action because, Reese said, "we have stood back and waited for the fire company to do something about its exorbitant debt and they haven't."

Tonia Rudy, president of the fire company, said the organization is looking into its options concerning the fire truck.

Rudy said she did not attend the meeting where the statement was read, but was surprised to hear it.

"I knew they were unhappy with the interest rate we were getting on (the fire engine), but I was surprised they would put that liability on us," Rudy said.