The latest court decision in an ongoing legal battle between Union Township and its local fire department could benefit rural fire companies in Centre County.
That’s according to an attorney representing the Citizen’s Hook and Ladder Fire Company of Milesburg and several local municipalities in a dispute over funding the fire department receives from Union Township.
A state appeals court on Wednesday upheld a Centre County court decision from last year that ordered Union Township to fund the department at levels agreed upon by other local municipalities and the department itself.
The volunteer department provides fire protection and rescue and emergency services to four municipalities — Milesburg and Unionville boroughs, and Boggs and Union townships.
In 2005, the four governments joined with the fire department and its relief association in entering an intergovernmental cooperative agreement, which established the Citizen’s Hook and Ladder oversight committee.
Made up of representatives of each municipality, the fire department and the fireman’s relief association, the committee, among other things, sets the fire department’s budget and controls its finances.
But in 2010, the Union Township supervisors voted to provide less funding to the department than called for by the committee. The fire department and other municipalities sued, and the matter went before Centre County Judge Pamela A. Ruest.
Ruest ruled in favor of the fire department and other municipalities in 2012, ordering Union Township to make up the difference between what it paid and the funding amount set by the committee.
The township appealed the matter to the Commonwealth Court, and on Wednesday a three-judge panel that heard the appeal upheld Ruest’s decision.
Attorney David Engle, who is representing the fire department and Milesburg, Unionville and Boggs Township, said the ruling supports intergovernmental agreements that can be beneficial for rural fire departments.
Engle said such agreements can protect the financial viability of fire companies, which often rely on local government funding, and which are essential in protecting local residents and businesses in those communities.
Fire companies in State College or Bellefonte “aren’t going to get there quick enough if it happens, particularity in these rural townships,” Engle said.
Attorney William Tressler, who is representing Union Township, said the supervisors’ decision to go against the committee and decrease funding was not arbitrary. He said township officials felt “isolated” and that they had no voice on the committee.
“They felt like they were ineffective in voicing complaints about the fire company,” he said.
Tressler said township officials also took issue with the fact that members of the fire department and relief association helped determine how much funding local municipalities should provide.
When arguing before Ruest, Tressler contended the municipality, not the committee, should set fire protection rates.
But Ruest ruled Union Township should pay because it entered into the cooperative agreement that explicitly gave the committee the ability to set rates, and because the rates in question were below limits set by the state.
The committee called for each municipality to contribute 1.33 mills of tax money to the department in 2010 and 1.66 mills in 2011 and 2012. The Union Township supervisors voted to provide 1 mill of funding, according to court documents.
The supervisors were ordered to pay the difference for those years. Tressler said he did not know the exact amount the township could have to pay, but said it is tens of thousands of dollars. Officials with Union Township did not return calls Friday.
“It’s not an insignificant amount when you have to appropriate it amongst a small township,” Tressler said. “People are nervous.”
Tressler said if the township chooses to appeal, the next step would be the state Supreme Court.
The committee also set the 2013 rate at 1.66 mills.
Representatives of the fire department could not be reached for comment Friday.