Budget to include paid fire chief

Bellevue Council was alerted this week that Mayor Emily Marburger will be including an expenditure of more than $100,000 in her proposed 2019 budget, the funds allocated to hiring a full-time fire chief who also will oversee code enforcement and trigger a possible management restructuring that would place the mayor in charge of all aspects of public safety.

Although the issue was discussed as part of the public safety committee agenda at Tuesday’s pre-council meeting, the committee itself remained quiet, as committee chair Grant Saylor referred the matter to Marburger. In fact, no one had any answers to what solicitor Matt Racunas described as “lots of complicated issues that have to be addressed.”

Among some of the issues pointed out by members of council at the meeting were the lack of a job description, a need to amend the personnel code in multiple areas, and even an amendment to the borough’s home rule charter that would require voters to approve an expansion of the mayor’s duties.

In contrast to the vast majority of small municipalities, Bellevue currently employs three paid firefighters in addition to a volunteer fire company. The employees man the fire station 24/7 and perform various fire safety-related duties. Historically, their primary duty has been to deploy Bellevue’s pumper fire truck to the scene of a call, which allows the volunteers to report directly to the scene and cuts the overall response time.

The volunteer fire company, however, is organized independently of the employees. It is a private organization that follows its own charter and by-laws, and elects its own administrative and line officers. It is authorized by the borough to provide fire services to the community, and the volunteer fire chief or another line officer commands every fire scene.

The structure works best, of course, when the paid and volunteer fire fighters are in sync, but officials say such is not the case in Bellevue. Marburger said that she was proposing the management structure change because the fire department was in a state of havoc and the problems have become a public safety issue. Council member Glenn Pritchard Jr., who also serves as an officer with the VFC, described the situation as “chaos,” stating that the employees are “out of control” and there is “animosity” between the paid and volunteer firefighters.

Pritchard recognized the value of having both paid and volunteer firefighters, especially in maintaining quick response times. “We need each other,” he said, but “we have to get along.”

He blamed the current dysfunction on the paid firefighters, which is one reason he opposes hiring a paid fire chief. The borough, he said “can’t control three of them. What are they going to do with a fourth?” He said that while some of the issues were private, personnel-related matters, there was a problem with the paid firefighters making disparaging comments about the volunteers and, in one case, telling a new volunteer that “this was a bad time to join the fire company.”

This is not the first time a feud between the paid and volunteer firefighters has threatened to impact public safety. Originally, the paid employees were designated as “fire truck drivers” and all were members of the VFC. Conflicts have arisen over the years as the employees left the fire company, took on the role of “firefighter” and eventually were given the rank of lieutenant.

Marburger’s plan would involve hiring a full-time paid fire chief who also would oversee the code
enforcement office. The three paid firefighters also would serve as code enforcement officers, she said. The mayor said she was looking at an initial salary of about $80,000 for the chief, with the cost of benefits pushing that number over the $100,000 mark, as was pointed out by council member Linda Woshner.

Woshner asked the mayor where she was getting the money for the new position, and Marburger said that she was pulling funds from several budget categories, but could not specifically identify those categories. Director of Administrative Services Ron Borczyk said that with all parties unwilling to increase taxes, the funding for the position would be a matter of “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Woshner also noted that the borough could not force the volunteer firefighters to recognize the authority of a paid chief. Marburger agreed. “We can’t make them, but we would like to work with them.” Pritchard said that the decision-makers in the VFC have yet to be formally approached by the mayor, although Marburger said that she had spoken with volunteers.

She called the proposal “an opportunity to create a structure that could work for us in the future.”

Marburger previously said that Bellevue was among the last municipalities to restructure its paid and volunteer firefighters, but in response to questions by Woshner pointed to Dormont as the only local municipality to implement the structure.

Pritchard said there were a “huge number of differences” between Dormont and Bellevue, among them that Dormont’s budget was some 50 percent higher than Bellevue’s.

All in all, Pritchard said, the mayor’s proposal was something “we don’t have, don’t need, and don’t have a lot of information on.”

The months of work that would be necessary to create and alter job descriptions, amend the borough’s personnel code, and reach an agreement with the volunteers increased exponentially when council member Tom Hrynda asked Marburger to whom the paid chief would answer. “I’d like to see the mayor be in charge of all public safety,” she said.

The borough’s home rule charter, which can be amended only by ballot referendum, specifically limits the mayor’s duties to overseeing the management of the police department and proposing an annual budget. Currently, the paid firefighters and the code enforcement employees are under the direction of the director of administrative services. Council is the only part of government able to authorize the expenditure of funds.

The Citizen reached out to one of the paid firefighters for comment on the proposal and the complaints voiced by Pritchard, but as of press time, he had declined to comment.