Lower Saucon Council to Discuss Steel City Fire Company’s Future

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Since the merger between Southeastern Volunteer Fire Company and Se-Wy-Co Volunteer Fire Company to form Lower Saucon Fire Rescue was completed in January 2019, Lower Saucon Township residents and property owners have been protected by two volunteer fire departments, with the other being Steel City Volunteer Fire Company.

That could change, pending the outcome of a discussion this week by Lower Saucon Township Council about making Lower Saucon Fire Rescue the township’s only designated fire services provider; a discussion that will happen in the wake of questions being raised by the township’s solicitor about a charitable donation Steel City made.

Lower Saucon Fire Rescue is also scheduled to present its annual report at Wednesday’s township council meeting.

The report, which is included with the attachments to the draft agenda (pp. 27-35) for Wednesday’s council meeting, includes an introduction by Fire Chief Ty Johnson.

“Our volunteers save the taxpayers of Lower Saucon Township more than $1 million dollars each year in fire protection costs,” Johnson wrote. “The financial support from Lower Saucon Township and the partnership of the council members make it possible for Lower Saucon Fire Rescue to help others in their time of need.”

RECENT FIRE COMPANY HISTORY

A decision by council to make Lower Saucon Fire Rescue the only designated fire services provider could spell the end for Steel City, which less than a decade ago was one of four independent volunteer fire companies serving the township.

The three other companies at the time were Southeastern, Se-Wy-Co and Leithsville.

Leithsville became part of Se-Wy-Co in 2012 as part of an agreement that reportedly made it the first merged fire department in Northampton County history.

Both Lower Saucon Fire Rescue and Steel City Volunteer Fire Company–along with Dewey Fire Company & EMS in Hellertown–were recently recognized by the Hellertown-Lower Saucon Chamber of Commerce with their 2021 Community Partner Award, in recognition of their dedication to duty during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Roberts Avenue fire

Steel City fire trucks line Roberts Avenue in Steel City, Lower Saucon Township, after a house fire broke out there on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018. Steel City is the township’s most densely populated neighborhood, but also its most remote, wedged on a narrow plain between the Lehigh River and a tall ridge that separates it from the Bethlehem Landfill. (FILE PHOTO)

BUDGET CONCERNS

In late 2020, by a 3-2 vote, Lower Saucon Township Council created a target timeline for the merger of Lower Saucon Fire Rescue and Steel City Volunteer Fire Company as part of the township’s 2021 budget; a timeline that reduced the amount of township funding each company would receive–potentially down to nothing–if the merger was not completed by June 1, 2021.

The township budgeted a total of $312,930.00 (p. 16) for combined fire and emergency services in 2021; an increase of $5,300 over the previous year. Included in that total was $215,000 in contributions to the two fire companies, as well as funding for various other fire protection-related items, such as gas for vehicles. (The $82,914 included in the budget for Fireman’s Relief is state funding, as documented on page 27 of the budget.)

In a July 18 Saucon Shenanigans blog entry, township resident and council watcher Andrea Wittchen wrote that at council’s June 16 meeting, a motion to fully fund Lower Saucon Fire Rescue to the tune of the $150,000 that was budgeted–and not to provide any funding to Steel City in 2021– was approved unanimously. This decision came after Wittchen reported in a May entry that “the funding of the fire company hasn’t been on the (council) agenda at all during 2021.”

STEEL CITY SETS CONDITIONS FOR MERGER APPROVAL

Attachments included with the draft agenda for Wednesday’s meeting appear to shed some light on concerns by township staff about Steel City’s finances, as well as issues that have arisen with the merger council initially hoped would happen earlier this year.

Among the documents are a merger timeline and supporting documentation which demonstrate that Lower Saucon Fire Rescue approved a resolution in support of the merger with Steel City in November 2020.

The timeline states that on May 18, “(Steel City) stated they will not sign the resolution.”

That refusal followed a February letter from a fire company attorney outlining a dozen requirements (pp. 73-74 in the agenda attachments), which included a requirement that only an operational merger take place in 2021, with a full merger to take place in one or two years; a requirement that during the operational merger and for the first five years after the full merger, former Steel City members hold at least 33 percent of the board membership within the new organization; a requirement that the Steel City fire station remain open until at least 2050; and a requirement that Steel City be permitted to “continue any fundraising efforts it determines are profitable during the operational merger with all proceeds benefitting Steel City.”

Specifically, in the final requirement it was noted that “these efforts shall include the Red Line Run and the Bushkill Valley Motorcycle Ride.”

DONATION QUESTIONED

Yet it was a 2019 charitable contribution as evidenced by an IRS form (p. 39 in the council agenda attachments) that apparently caught the attention of township solicitor Linc Treadwell, prompting him to ask the attorney for Steel City a number of questions in a letter dated April 15, 2021.

The Form 990-EZ documents a $40,000 charitable donation to a “Fallen Officer James Distasio” of Landing, N.J.

Treadwell’s letter indicates that Steel City had received $50,000 from The Boston Foundation–a community foundation made up of various charitable funds, according to a foundation description–before donating $40,000 to Distasio.

Among the 12 questions about the donation Treadwell asked Steel City legal counsel Marie McConnell, of Fitzpatrick Lentz & Bubba, in his letter of April 15, were:

  • “What is the Red Line Run event and what is the name of the motorcycle club that partnered with Steel City Fire Company?”
  • “How did the Boston Foundation find out about the event, and why did it make a donation?”
  • “What is the original source of the $50,000 that the Boston Foundation donated to the Steel City Fire Company?”
  • “Did the Boston Foundation direct the Steel City Fire Company to donate $40,000 to Officer Distasio?” “If not, who made the decision to donate the funds to Officer Distasio?”
  • “Do the Steel City by laws and stated charitable purpose allow for the redistribution of donated funds to an individual?”

Treadwell requested McConnell’s answers to his questions by April 30.

If they were provided, they’re not included with the documents attached to Wednesday’s agenda, and Wittchen in her latest blog post reported that, “the response from the fire company’s counsel had been received only late on the afternoon of the (June 16) Council meeting and had provided insufficient information to answer the questions raised.”

Regardless, it is possible those questions–and whatever answers to them may be forthcoming–will feature prominently in the discussion council is expected to have.

Also likely to feature in it is a list of “claimed active members” of Steel City (p. 40). Out of 12 individuals listed, only three are currently active members, according to the document: Fire Chief Chris Snyder, Assistant Chief Scott Nocek and Assistant Chief David Rockstroh. According to the document, Snyder is also Fire Marshal for Freemansburg, which is identified in it by its station call number, “Fire 12.”

Zoning Lower Saucon Township Councilman

Lower Saucon Town Hall (FILE PHOTO)

WEDNESDAY’S COUNCIL MEETING

The discussion regarding the future of fire protection services in Lower Saucon Township is set to take place at council’s meeting Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at Lower Saucon Town Hall, 3700 Old Philadelphia Pike, Bethlehem.

The meeting will be held entirely in person at Lower Saucon Town Hall, and will be the first in-person council meeting that is open to the public since the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020 and the township began streaming its meetings online.

Under the township’s meeting rules, there are separate, designated times during which residents and non-residents may address council on non-agenda items within a three-minute time limit.

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