Jacobus cuts money to struggling department

Sean Philip Cotter

Frustrated with the quality of the Goodwill Fire Co.’s responses to fires, the Jacobus council has voted to cut funding to the local department.

Goodwill Fire Company fire station is shown in Jacobus, Pa. on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015. (Dawn J. Sagert - The York Dispatch)

The goal, Mayor Gregory Gruendler told The York Dispatch this past week, is to shake up the borough’s relationship with the department – hopefully for the better.

Volunteer shortage: Gruendler said he and the council want the department to present a long-term plan to improve the fire department’s staffing levels and responsiveness.

That's because the department hasn’t been able to get enough volunteers, so there have been occasions when it was unable to respond to house fires around Jacobus, he said.

"There is evidence that they are responding poorly to some structure fires and car accidents," he said.

This has mainly been the case during the day, when the volunteers were at work, the mayor said; other departments have had to be the primary firefighters in the borough.

That prompted a conversation during budget discussions in the council’s November meeting about whether they should contribute the same amount in 2016 that they did in 2015, which was $12,000.

The council voted to cut it by a third, to $8,000, after talk about the quality of the department’s services.

“The discussion did lean toward the punitive side,” Gruendler said.

He said he hopes this provides "motivation" for the department to come up with a long-term plan to get more volunteers, and be more responsive.

Fire company president Patty Shaeffer told The York Dispatch the department wants to work with the borough, and said the department would have no further comment.

The department also sent out a page to its firefighters a little while later on Thursday telling them not to talk to the media.

The past: This didn't apply to former Chief Jim Ostinowsky, who resigned from the department in September after just under two years as chief; he acknowledged that the station has had issues with responses to emergency calls.

"Yes, we scratched calls, absolutely," he said. He said that over the past year or so it had become "pretty common" that they'd either not be able to go out during the day, or they'd just send one unit with a few firefighters out.

He said one reason he resigned was because many of the volunteers "just picked and chose their calls." By the time he resigned, the station only had 10 firefighters who qualified as active members, which means they went out on 20 percent of the calls.

"That would burn you out," he said.

What's Next: Gruendler agreed this situation will probably go one of two ways. The one he’d like to see would be the fire department coming up with a definite plan to improve responsiveness and staffing, and brings it to the borough. The borough then tries to give it whatever help the fire department needs, and from there, in theory, things improve.

But then there’s the other course events might take, he said: The fire department does not come up with a plan, and the situation, escalated by the funding cut, continues to “fester;” the department continues to respond inadequately, and prospective volunteers are deterred from joining because of the friction between the department and the borough.

“I’m hoping we can come to a mutually agreeable course,” the mayor said.

The borough levies 2 mills of municipal property tax, and it passed a budget that will hold the line on taxes for 2016. Gruendler said the council had to cut from various parts of the budget to make that work, but that the council wanted to do so after several recent hikes. Cutting from the department was part of that strategy.

But Gruendler said if the department came to him with a good plan that needed more funding, he could see himself and the council being willing to support a tax hike to help cover it.

Ostinowsky said he brought up the idea of a "fire tax" — a tax whose proceeds are earmarked specifically to go to the local department — to the borough council a couple of years ago when he was chief.

"It didn’t go over well with them," he said.

More than a dozen municipalities around York County levy fire taxes, which are usually between .1 and 1 mills.

At the November meeting, Councilman Jeff Hammers proposed the motion for the decrease in funding. He told The York Dispatch on Thursday the cut wasn’t meant to punish the department – it was purely fiduciary.

“Jacobus, like every other small town, has a tight budget,” he said.

He said the council merely decided it was in the borough’s best interest to spend the money elsewhere.

“If they are providing less service, we should be providing them with less money,” he said.

He said he didn’t think the department was hurting for money, and he thought they may have put too much money and focus on water rescues.

Lake Redman and the York Reservoir both sit just outside the borough’s borders, and Goodwill is the closest department to both. Gruendler said he understands why having some water-rescue equipment makes sense. However, he said, it sometimes seems the department focuses too much on the water rescues, while structure fires fall by the wayside.

“They can get a lot of people there when they train, to play with the boats, but can you get the same when carry a stretcher down the stairs?” Gruendler said.

Ostinowsky said the lake is in their area, so they do need to have some way of rescuing people in it, though in his opinion they might have a bit more than they should.

"Do they need three boats? Probably not," he said.

Funding: The former chief thinks the answer for how to improve the department lies with providing the department with more funding. He said the departments that have remained successful at drawing firefighters have municipalities that have invested significantly in the fire companies, so  they didn't have to devote so much time and energy to fundraising.

Ostinowsky estimated the department's budget totaled somewhere just north of $100,000 last year, when he was chief. That would mean just over 10 percent came from funding from the borough, and some more came from some of the surrounding municipalities and grants. But that left about 60 percent of the budget coming from fundraising, he estimated.

The former chief echoed the complaint of many other fire chiefs in the area, saying the need to constantly and frequently take part in fundraisers is a turn-off to many who want to become volunteer firefighters.

"Why should someone have to donate their time and effort and put their lives on the line, and also have to raise the money to do that?" he said.

— Reach Sean Cotter atscotter@yorkdispatch.com.