PHILIPSBURG, CENTRE COUNTY, Pa (WTAJ)– Thursday evening, Philipsburg Borough Council held a special meeting for “general purposes” where “anything” was up for discussion.
Ultimately much of the discussion centered on one topic: the possibility of dropping service from one of the borough’s two fire companies.
If this was ultimately decided, regardless of the company dropped, close to 140 years of firefighting service for Philipsburg would end.
Both the Hope and Reliance fire companies, founded just six years apart, were formed in the 1880’s.
Now, the older of the two, Reliance Fire Co. could soon see its last calls in the borough if council decides to draft an ordinance of decertification.
Why is discussion of decertifying beginning?
After many in-depth conversations with all parties involved, WTAJ looks to answer this question by providing background and addressing the controversies building up to this discussion.
Below are subheadings outlining the different factors at play in this decision.
Every two years, an election is held for leadership positions on the Philipsburg Fire Department, which oversees both fire companies. Those elected also play a bigger role in the Moshannon Valley Fire Council, which is tasked with providing equal funding to Reliance and Hope Fire Companies.
The municipalities funding the fire council (through tax dollars) are: Philipsburg Borough, Rush Township, and Decatur Township (Clearfield County).
The election for the 2020 and 2021 officers was held on the first week of November, 2019.
The office of chief, overseeing both departments, was up for election (among many other offices).
Those at Reliance told WTAJ it had been eight years since any of their firefighters had been elected Chief.
It has everything to do with who can vote and (like most elections) who shows up.
According to the department’s by-laws, any member in good standing for both company’s can vote. This includes firefighters and social members.
Reliance says for the last eight years, Hope’s social members have outnumbered Reliance’s at the election and thus were the determining factor. Before 2012, the company chief position would pass back-and-forth between the two companies every two years.
In the Spring of 2019 Reliance claims a by-law requiring the Chief to alternate every year was up for vote, but was not approved.
This decision however, did not stop Reliance from having one of their own elected chief… the company’s social members outnumbered Hope’s on election day, and won every race (many by default).
“Once Hope saw that Reliance had a good number of people there, their nominated people all declined their nomination prior to the vote being taken, with the exception of one or two,” said Clayton Gilham, President of Reliance Fire Company, and Chief Elect of the Philipsburg Fire Department.
But Gilham had no idea of the waves this election would make.
“At that time nobody questioned the election, the election was held. The opposition [Hope Fire Co.] was not happy with the outcome. They made some statements that they weren’t happy with it, but at that time… nobody from the chair questioned the validity of the election. We left thinking the election was done,” he said.
About a month after the election, Gilham said Reliance met with Philipsburg Borough Council. At that meeting Gilham claims Reliance asked the borough: “Will you accept the validity of the election?”
To which they answered: “Yes” (according to Gilham).
But Gilham says that Reliance later discovered that the borough’s solicitor sent a letter to Centre County 911 stating the borough did not accept the outcome of the election. The borough indicated that the existing Chief (Jeff Harris from Hope Fire Co.) would remain the Chief until further notice from the borough.
Gilham’s response: “I was upset, but I’m also trying to be the adult in the room. I’m not going to contest that on the fire ground when there’s any chance for any kind of injury. I thought we’d let this play out.”
WTAJ asked Philipsburg Borough Council President Barbara Gette if the borough has changed their stance on accepting the outcome of this election.
“No we have not…,” she said.
“Because we felt that the election was rigged, they didn’t advertise it. There is absolutely no documentation we’ve seen as to who voted.” Gette said. She added that the borough’s asked for documentation, but haven’t received anything.
Gilham’s response: “There is nothing in department by-laws that says that that the meeting has to be advertised or the borough has to be notified, and we followed the department by-laws to the letter in this election.”
Gilham explained that everyone who is voting on election night must sign-in.
“That way they can count the paper ballots against the number of people who were there to make sure there was nothing inconsistent,” he said.
Gette: “It would be nice to see that list of names for documentation.”
Gilham says the borough never asked for this list.
“This is not the first time that Philipsburg Borough has said we have not provided them with documentation. We asked them specifically what documentation they’re looking for and get no answer,” he said.
He added that the election night process in November was no different than previous years.
WTAJ to Gette: “If this is how the election’s always been done, why are you making a point of seeking documentation this year?”
Gette: “That I can’t answer.”
Gilham says Reliance has spoken with their attorney about this. He has been sworn-in as the Company Chief by a Magisterial District Judge. Rush Township has recognized him as chief.
With a change in leadership, Gilham said the financial records of the Moshannon Valley Fire Council should be passed to the new Chief (himself), and leadership (all now from Reliance).
The financial records include funds given from Philipsburg Borough Council to the fire council (overseen in-part by elected Hope officials over the last 8 years). But these records are currently being withheld by the borough until they deem the election valid.
Gette confirmed this: “We have decided to hold some of those things back until we get the documentation.”
The process of trying to see the specifics of the fire council’s finances is not new to Reliance, before November’s election, they filed three “right-to-know” requests for an audit of the fire council.
“We have not seen a full audit. When we asked for an audit, we got a balance sheet,” Gilham said.
He added that the fire council has not been officially audited over the last 10-12 years and that Reliance placed a call to the PA Attorney General two years ago, who’s supposedly investigating this. Reliance says they’ve never heard back.
Gette says she would be open to an audit of fire council finances, believing it would be fair.
Why has Reliance asked for an audit?
Some in the company believe funds are not being equally split among the two departments.
Gilham told WTAJ that each year both Reliance and Hope recieve an equal fuel allotment ($3,500-$4,000) and small equipment fund ($2,500). But, Gilham says there’s a big difference in funding when it comes to firetruck purchases and maintenance.
He says Reliance owned an engine that cost the fire council nearly $40,000 in maintenance for just the first financial quarter of 2017.
“We were told by fire council not to run that engine anymore, that they weren’t going to pay for maintenance anymore it was costing them too much money, that we should purchase something else we could afford,” Gilham said.
Following that directive, he says Reliance purchased a new engine in their price range, which the company bought with their own money… meaning they own the engine (they own all their fire apparatus).
Following this purchase, Reliance went to the fire council asking for help with maintenance costs. Gilham says they refused because the engine wasn’t owned by the council.
“We asked what we needed to do to get funding for it… and were pretty much stone-walled,” Gilham says.
He added: “If we went to fire council today and said we need to purchase a tire, they would deny that request and we would have to purchase it ourselves.”
Hope received a loan for their apparatus from the fire council, therefore the fire council is also funding maintenance costs for it because they co-own it.
While many feel there is no fault to Hope for receiving a loan, Reliance feels it’s unfair they don’t receive maintenance funds just because they bought their engine with their own money.
To Gilham, this underlines the inequality of the fire council (funded in-part by Philipsburg Borough).
“There is no 50/50 split of funds because we get nothing other than that fuel allotment. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but I believe in 2019 they’ve [the council’s] spent upwards of $20,000 for maintenance on Hope’s Engine,” Gilham said.
From Gette’s standpoint at the borough, Hope is “easier to work with”, and gives the borough their financial records consistently. Whereas, she says, Reliance has not released the same extent of records in the past and is “difficulty to work with.”
But, Gilham claims that this is the first year that the borough has asked for Reliance’s financial records. At first Gilham asked to know why the borough wanted them and said the company was improperly labeled.
“They never responded to us instead they said we refused to give them the information,” he said.
Gilham added that the borough did ultimately receive Reliance’s financial records.
WTAJ asked Gette: Why did the borough asked for Reliance’s finances for the first time?
Response: “Council’s change.”
Recently Gilham says Reliance went to the borough and fire council asking for additional funds for pump certification, which relates to fire insurance for borough residents. He says they refused to pay, and Reliance footed the bill.
When asked if there is an equal distribution of money to both fire companies, Gette said “yes, there is definitely equality.”
THE HATFIELD’S AND THE MC-COY’S (THE RELIANCE’S AND PHILIPSBURG BOROUGH… WITH A LITTLE SPRINKLE OF THE HOPE’S)
When two fire companies are only a block apart, in a borough of less than 3,000 people, many say a rivalry is bound to pop-up.
Gilham said the recent rivalry started between the two companies a few years ago when they were looking to merge.
“When they presented the procedure for the merge, Reliance looked at the merge, didn’t like the way it looked, and didn’t want to be a part of it,” he said.
That didn’t sit well with many in the borough.
In reference to the merger, Gette said,”There was a lot of time and love put into that project.” She was sad that it didn’t work out.
Philipsburg Mayor John Strano said at one point in borough history, a statue was wrecked as a result of a fight between the two companies.
But Gilham says right now it’s mostly friendly competition, and that Reliance is fighting much more with another entity: Philipsburg Borough.
In relation to the November department election Gilham said:
“There is nothing in the department by-laws that says what the department does is at the behest of the Philipsburg Borough Council. There’s nothing that says department elections must be approved or disapproved by the Philipsburg Borough Council. By insinuating themselves into this, they’ve made the situation worse.”
Gette disagreed: “I don’t look at it as interjecting. I look at it as being a good steward in making sure things are done correctly and truthfully.”
But Gilham feels some on council have other motivations.
“There’s been animosity between borough council and the Reliance Fire Company for years. It’s personal animosity from a couple of council members against the company, and I think that’s coming to a head,” he said.
Just how personal?
Gilham: “One of the borough council members, and I won’t give a name, made a statement that he would see to it personally that Clayton Gilham was never the Chief of the Philipsburg Fire Department. A personal vendetta.”
Mayor Strano: “It’s not a personal thing, it’s just a lack of cooperation…”
Gette: “Relations are strained, but it’s not deliberate on our part. We have tried to work with them and they have not cooperated like we appreciate.”
“Can you list any examples?”
Gette “Their record keeping is not what I would expect from an organization like that… and they did not willingly come forward to share some of it.”
Still, with all of the recent animosity, there is hope from both sides that decertification doesn’t happen.
“I don’t want to see this happen, none of us do,” Gette said.
“I think if we all come to the table in a sensible manner, cooler heads prevail and we can get this worked out,” Gilham said.
While it’s possible talks between Reliance and the borough end peacefully without the company being dropped from Philipsburg, there’s a more harsh reality as well: decertifying the company.
Since Reliance is located in the borough, they’re certified there. Under borough code, council has a right decertify a company.
It’s something they may be prepared to do. At one point, discussions at Thursday night’s meeting centered on the possibility of having the company certified with another municipality they serve (Rush or Decatur Township).
“Talk of the decertification really caught us off guard,” Gilham said going into Thursday’s meeting.
To him, the thought of not fighting fires in the borough is hard to grasp.
“If the house across the street from us were to catch fire, flames coming out the window. If we were decertified we would not be able to move this engine out into the street and put that fire out. Legally we would have to stand here and watch it burn in reality, my men aren’t like that and we would do something,” Gilham said.
Streno said the goal of Thursday’s meeting was to gather input from citizens on the possibility of no longer having the department answering borough calls.
“It’s not a nice thing to have to do, but it’s something we may have to do. It’s still all open for talk,” Streno said.
Gette says she originally had concerns over fire coverage, but for her that’s no longer a worry.
“After speaking with a couple officers from Hope Fire Company, they’ve pretty much persuaded me that the coverage will always be there, and we won’t have to worry about that,” she said.
A draft ordinance is currently made up for Reliance’s decertification, but nothing official is written on it.
If the borough decides to move forward in dropping Reliance, they could vote to adopt an official decertification ordinance and vote on the matter at an upcoming meeting.
Philipsburg Borough Council’s next meeting is January, 20.