Irwin proposed budget cuts fire department funding by 14 percent

November 10, 2018

Having firefighters help pump out flooded basements or clear felled trees from Irwin streets be curtailed if borough officials follow through on plans to slash funding for the fire department, Chief Justin Mochar warns.

“They are putting us on the (hot) coals on this,” Mochar said.

Eliminating non-emergency services would likely follow if the department’s allocation is cut by 14 percent, as borough council members discussed this week. Mayor William Hawley said the true cut would be even deeper.

Next year’s proposed budget would reduce the volunteer fire department’s allocation to $100,000, down from $116,000 this year. The difference effectively would be a $24,000 decrease, Hawley said, as a $7,500 insurance payment previously paid separately would now come out of the $100,000 allocation.

“Those guys give a lot of their time I hope they are there for us when we need them,” Hawley said Tuesday at a council workshop meeting.

Councilwoman Leslie Savage, a finance committee member, said council has not received financial statements it requested in August to evaluate the fire department’s finances. The department provided a two-page summary of comparative profits and losses for 2016, 2017 and for this year, up to mid-August, Savage said. She wants the tax return for 2017 and a financial statement or the first six months or first nine months of 2018, as prepared by an accountant or other professional. Savage said she obtained the 2015 and 2016 tax returns through Guidestar, an online database containing financial statements of non-profit organizations.

“If they gave us the reports we needed, we would not be in this position,” Savage said.

Mochar said the department’s 2017 tax returns are not complete, and the department does not want to pay an accountant to provide a partial-year financial statement. The department has provided the borough with the requested information and some expenditures listed on the proposed budget are inaccurate, Mochar said.

If the department eliminates non-emergency services, the borough could end up paying public works or police to do that work, Mochar said.

The department also likely would sell its rescue truck if its allocation is reduced, Mochar said. The ambulance service implemented non-emergency patient transfer service. If the department is generating more revenue, “then (Irwin’s) support should go down,” Savage said. That would be acting as a “good steward” of taxpayer money, Savage said.

Mochar said the borough has refused to turn over an $1,800 insurance payment it received for repairing damage to the fire hall caused by a fire department vehicle. The department paid for the repairs, prompting the chief to question whether the borough had the right to withhold the insurance payment.

Hawley suggested borough and fire department officials meet again to discuss the finances.

The mayor suggested council could implement an amusement tax on entertainment and give the projected $20,000 in revenue to the fire department.

Council this year discussed such a tax, possibly a fee of $1 per ticket, that would be levied on venues that charge for entertainment. Most of the burden for the tax would fall on the non-profit Lamp Theatre, which hosts concerts, plays and movies.

Council never voted on the controversial proposal. Council President Rick Burdelski, who was not at the meeting, had previously said he does not expect the matter to be considered again this year.

A draft of the proposed 2019 budget balances expenses and revenues at about $3.9 million, approximately $150,000 more than the 2018 budget. The proposed budget keeps property taxes at 20 mills. Council raised real estate taxes by 2 mills for 2018.

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