Fire Department Seeks Support on Funding

Editor, News-Register:

Open letter to the Residents and Business Owners of the Village of Bethlehem:

The Bethlehem Fire Department (BFD) is asking the residents and the business owners of the Village of Bethlehem for their support in requesting that the mayor and Village Council reinstate our 62.5 percent funding level from the utility tax collected. This has been in effect since 1975 and has been a stable source of funding to the BFD.

Mayor Tim Bishop and four members of the Village Council, Charles Griffin, Steve Gulajski, Judi Kirker, and Stanley Wojcik, voted in the last council meeting for a motion to reduce the funding to the BFD. They voted to reduce the amount allotted to the fire department from a 62.5 percent of the utility tax collected (budgeted at $56,250.00 for this fiscal year), to $30,000 a year. This figure may even go lower if the mayor and council decide to take the yearly “fire hydrant” rental fee from this amount, which has been done in recent years. This would then reduce the funding provided to the BFD from the village by about 50 percent. The BFD believes that the mayor and four council members are not acting in the best interest of the Village of Bethlehem and have stated that the money saved would be used for other village project(s). The BFD believes that these other projects could not be more important than this money being spent on preserving life and property.

In a November 21, 2017 interview, Mayor Bishop stated, “We reached out to the fire department; they gave us a list that shows every dime of the village funds provided to them over the last 10 years went straight to a money market account, it didn’t pay for one ladder, it didn’t pay for one air tank, one mask, one boot, one training session, it went right into a bank account.” To clarify the truth, the “reach out” was a letter sent to the BFD on February 13, 2017, inferring that funds to the BFD may be cut. Mayor Bishop asked the BFD for five years of financial records, not 10 years. The BFD responded in a letter to Mayor Bishop on February 20, 2017, stating that the BFD had received $227,138.62 from the utility tax from January 2012 to December 2016. Mayor Bishop was advised that all funds from the village are placed in a single account to enable the BFD to purchase big ticket items, as was done in 2015 when $300,000 was taken from the utility tax money to partially pay for our new 2015 Sutphen Fire Truck at a total cost of $531,976.00.

So, though the mayor is correct in asserting that village funds did not pay for one air tank, one mask, one boot, or one training session (it did pay for three new ladders), he is not letting the residents and business owners know of how the village funds are truly used by the BFD.

The mayor and council have repeatedly argued that the BFD has too much money in our accounts. The mayor should be applauding the sound fiscal standing of the BFD, not condemning the BFD and using this as an excuse to reduce funding as was done in the recent council meeting. Again, by being frugal with our finances, the BFD was able this year to pay off the new fire truck with the village funds and has been able to start a part-time paid fire and ambulance crew that is at the fire station from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday at a cost of approximately $65,000 per year. This is the first part-time paid crew in Ohio County. Since we started the paid crew in September, BFD has made calls with our crew that was able to get to a patient within a few minutes which actually was attributed to saving their lives.

In addition, BFD is working with an architect to develop designs to either expand and remodel our current fire station or build a new fire station. Initial cost for design studies is coming from the utility tax money. Our current fire trucks have outgrown the fire station where as we have about one inch of clearance to get in the garage doors. The reduction of funding by the mayor and council could lead the BFD to make a hard decision to eliminate or cut back on either or both the part time paid crew and building expansion. The BFD believes that both these ongoing projects are extremely vital and beneficial to the Village of Bethlehem.

As we have consistently informed the mayor and council, our members’ safety is BFD’s most important concern. Reduced funding by the mayor and Village Council could adversely affect the safety of our members, residents, and the stability of the BFD to continue to operate. We believe that the morale of the members could be affected because of uncertainties in available funds to maintain equipment and operational readiness.

Any loss in maintaining equipment or operational readiness could also affect Bethlehem’s current fire insurance Class 4 rating. Next to the City of Wheeling, Bethlehem has the lowest rating in Ohio County. This rating directly affects what each home owner, renter, and business owner’s pays in their yearly premiums for insurance. If adverse changes occur within the BFD due to these funding cuts, the insurance classification rating could change, causing an increase in insurance premiums.

One way the BFD could regain the level of funding loss imposed by the mayor and council is by joining the Ohio County Fire Board. However, this would impose a fire service fee “tax” on each home and business owner in Bethlehem. This tax money would be collected by Ohio County and be distributed to all Ohio County fire departments, with only a portion of the money coming back to Bethlehem. The BFD would only look at this as a last resort to maintain our funding levels.

The BFD would like to thank the councilmen who voted against cutting our funds, Thomas Auten, Stephen Harasuik, Robert Henry, and Mark Saseen. The BFD believes that these councilmen do have the best interests of Bethlehem in mind.

The BFD would ask for your support by contacting the mayor and council and asking them to reinstate our current funding level. We would appreciate your support!

Thank You.

George P. Saseen, president

of the Board of Directors and on behalf of all members of the Bethlehem Fire Department