Pennsylvania Department Fights For Survival

March 4, 2009
Volunteers wants to put troubles behind them, but state wants to close station for good.

GLEN IRON -- Eight months after the organization fell apart amid a $38,000 embezzlement scandal, the Union County West End Fire Company is trying to put the pieces back together despite the state attorney general's efforts to shut it down for good.

The volunteer fire company, which also operates the adjoining social club in Glen Iron that was victimized by its former treasurer, recently elected a fire chief and is recruiting new members.

Meanwhile, the attorney general filed a petition in Union County Court last week to dissolve the fire company, which lost roughly 20 of its 35 active firefighters from the scandal fallout. The reason for the move, according to the petition, is that the company is unable to provide adequate fire protection for Hartley Township.

Shortly after the June arrest of Joyce Bingaman, 58, of Mifflinburg, on charges of embezzling $37,700 of social club funds, the township supervisors adopted a resolution to contract with the Mifflinburg Hose Company to protect the municipality because of West End's lack of manpower and finances.

Bingaman is scheduled to be sentenced in two weeks on felony charges of theft. She faces up to seven years in prison.

"Since the organization is not fulfilling its charitable mission, it should be dissolved," said Nils Frederiksen, attorney general spokesman. "They still exist as an organization at this point. Our office has the authority to regulate charitable nonprofit organizations, and under the law, if the money is set aside for charity, we make sure the money is doing what it's supposed to do. Their mission is to protect the community, and that's not being done."

Additionally, the petition says the fire company continued to raise money through small games of chance at its social club despite not being able to provide fire protection.

The Hartley Township supervisors declined to comment Monday, saying they have not had a chance to review the attorney general's petition.

However, fire company officials said they're moving forward despite the attorney general's plan and the township's decision to have a neighboring fire company serves as the first responder.

"We're on the path back," said Ron Jacoby, fire company president. "We have a new fire chief, some members have come back and our insurance returned $25,000 of the $38,000 we lost. It's been a trying process, but we're working hard to get back on our feet."

Jerry Johnson, of Laurelton, who returned home in December from a year's tour in Afghanistan with the Pennsylvania National Guard, was elected fire chief. The first mission, he says, is to rebuild the membership.

"We've had a few come back, while others want to wait until the whole situation is resolved," Johnson said. "A lot of the guys don't want to be in the middle of the fight."

He said the company has about 15 firefighters, including junior members, but also has garnered growing interest from potential volunteers.

"People who I've never seen before are asking about the fire company," Johnson said. "Every two weeks or so, I get someone wanting to know how they can help. We're just happy to have people talking."

The company is essentially starting from scratch, according to Johnson.

"Being a firefighter takes a lot of time, especially when catching up on training," he said. "Right now, we're in the recruitment phase. I'm trying to get our numbers back up, then we'll be able to get a lot of our needed training done and equipment inspected."

Johnson said he has about seven firefighters, including himself, certified to operate the company's equipment and respond to emergencies. He said he would like to have at least 10 firefighters trained before making attempts to get back on the active emergency call list.

The hope is to at least launch the company back in operation as a second responder, Johnson said, helping Mifflinburg and other neighboring fire companies on calls.

"You have to crawl before you walk and then run," he said. "I'm hoping, if all things go right, we can start responding to calls by ourselves by May."

In the meantime, Frederiksen said Union County Judge Louis O. Knight will decide the next step in the petition process, which will include a chance for the fire company to respond and a probable hearing date.

Fire company officials said they plan to speak with the township supervisors next week about the situation and give an update on their effort to reorganize. The supervisors will meet at 7 p.m. March 9 in the township building in Laurelton.

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