The crowd was spilling out the door at Monday night’s meeting of Emmaus Borough Council, as nearly all of the 38 firefighters in the Emmaus Fire Department marched on borough hall to encourage council to reconsider a proposed 2013 budget cut that would eliminate paid overnight standbys at the fire station.
In the end, council did vote, in a 4-3 split, to add $80,000 back into the line item for paid on-call shifts, bringing the total allocation up to $152,000. The 2012 allocation is $172,000.
Borough Councilmen Brent Labenberg, Wesley Barrett and Nathan Brown opposed the decision.
Taxes in Emmaus will need to be raised 1/8th of a mill to 4.325 mills to cover the $80,000.
A final vote on the amended 2013 budget is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Monday, Dec. 24.
The Emmaus firefighters, who spent the better part of the weekend putting up fliers and handing out pamphlets about last night’s budget vote, were joined by firefighters from nearby municipalities, as well as borough residents.
Collectively, the firefighters and their supporters spoke for nearly two hours, with former Emmaus Fire Chief Robert Reiss taking the podium first. It was Reiss who began the paid overnight program 17 years ago to combat a shortage of volunteers.
Generally, the firefighters spoke about the public safety risk created by eliminating the paid overnight shift, largely due to the resulting increased response time when a fire call comes in. With a crew in the station, response time is about two minutes, they said, but an off-site crew would up that significantly, to more like 10 minutes.
Fires, the firefighters explained, quadruple in size every minute.
When it finally came time to vote on the budget following a lengthy executive session, Councilman Brian Holtzhafer, who heads the Budget and Finance committee, put forth a motion to amend the proposed budget to return a portion of the money cut from the fire department - $80,000 – and then raised the issue of “legal maters” that needed to be solved between council and the fire department moving forward.
Council then asked Township Solicitor Jeffrey Dimmich to try to summarize the situation. Dimmich said there are volunteer fire departments, paid fire departments and combinations of the two, but structurally the Emmaus Fire Department doesn’t match any of the three. Dimmich specifically listed violations of Emmaus Borough Code and the Fair Labor Act in describing the legal concerns.
“Moving forward, council has asked me to draft a fire department ordinance that puts the first department on a correct legal path,” Dimmich said. “One that satisfies the fire department and the law.
“They value your service and they have to be in compliance with the law,” he said.
In opposing the amended budget, Labenberg, Barrett and Brown said that their issue is not with the fire department, but with the legal matter and the need to address that first.
Following the meeting, Council President Lee Ann Gilbert and Borough Manager Shane Pepe declined to comment further on the legal matter