Fate of Career Pa. Department Rests with Voters

Even if the measure passes, the paid firefighters will be around until 2018.

June 12--Jeannette Council narrowly approved a resolution that will allow city residents to decide in November whether they want to continue to fund a paid fire department or rely on an all-volunteer unit to respond to emergencies.

By a 3-2 vote, council approved putting the question of the department's future on the ballot. Even if the measure passes, there can be no changes until the contract with firefighters, who are members of Local 78 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, expires on Dec. 31, 2018.

The vote brought an immediate response from IAFF Local President Mike Bertolino, who urged residents to attend July's council meeting to show their support for Bertolino, Chief Joe Matijevic and Capt. Chuck Miller, who make up the unit.

"I urge all residents of the city and especially the individuals helped by the Jeannette Fire Department over the years in one way or another, to come out to the next council meeting and let them know you support your paid fire department," Bertolino said.

Voting for the resolution were Mayor Richard Jacobelli and councilmen Mark Levander and Gabriel Homan, who initiated the study that was recommended by two state consultants as a way for the city to reduce its operating expenses and avoid being declared a financially troubled municipality.

Bill Bedont and Mark Clark opposed the measure.

Bedont said the department budget accounts for only 5 percent of the city's total $5.6 million spending plan, and abolishing the department is a "huge safety risk for very little savings."

Levander, who voted in favor of the resolution, said he hopes it doesn't pass.

"I have full faith the voters will not approve the recommendation," he said.

Homan said switching to volunteers will save the city at least $250,000 a year without affecting fire insurance premiums.

Matijevic questioned Homan's calculations and said it only costs residents 73 cents a day to fund the department.

"In my mind, you can't put a price on protecting lives and property in the City of Jeannette," he said. "I think it's a bad move."

Bertolino said the average Jeannette property owner pays about $2,500 a year in taxes to the county, city and school district. Of that figure, he said, $725 goes to the city. Only $36.25 in property taxes is used by the fire department.

Homan said the future of the 125-year-old fire department has been the "600-pound gorilla in the room" ever since he ran for council last year. He said residents are divided over its future.

"After 100 years, I think it's time for a vote whether we keep it or not," he said. "I have the most profound respect for them."

When he campaigned last year, Homan made the department an issue because of the cost of maintaining a police and fire department, along with the mandatory pension contributions, has put stress on the city's finances.

Council budgeted $290,000 for 2014, but the city also must contribute $89,000 toward the pension fund. The fire department's pension contributions are the smallest among the city's three unions. Jeannette must pay $536,000 for police this year and $200,000 for public works employees.

Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292 or rgazarik@tribweb.com.

Copyright 2014 - Tribune-Review, Greensburg, Pa.