Port Matilda fire company finance committee members resign

Members of the six-person committee tasked with paying the bills and managing money for the Port Matilda fire department resigned Tuesday, leaving the future of the panel in doubt.

The move, which came at a tense regular meeting of the Upper Bald Eagle/Halfmoon Council of Governments, will leave the fire department without someone who can write checks to cover expenses after Dec. 31.

COG officials said they will work to find replacements before then, but it wasn’t clear Tuesday what would happen or who would manage the department’s finances without new volunteers in place.

Committee chairman Lee Pressler told the Centre Daily Times on Monday that members of the group planned to resign over apparent disagreements with the fire department and COG, and what he described as poor treatment by the entities.

COG chairwoman Barbara Spencer asked Pressler and the others to reconsider during the meeting Tuesday, praising the work they have done and stressing the need for the committee.

“We need to think about the health of the fire company,” Spencer said. “To have all of you resign is not healthy for the fire company and for our community.”

Two members of the committee said they would stay on if Pressler would, but the man who was instrumental in bailing the fire company out of debt in 2005 followed through on his declaration to resign.

Pressler helped form the independent committee in 2005 and signed a 10-year agreement that allowed it to control the fire department’s finances. The move came after the company nearly lost its fire hall and truck to foreclosure in April 2005.

But he said the working relationship with COG and the fire department had since become mired with “problems and requirements.” He cited a lack of gratitude and cooperation from COG and the fire department among his reasons for stepping down.

Rita Young, who as a member of the committee served as treasurer for the fire department, said COG meetings have an “uncomfortable and unkind” atmosphere. Young recently moved away from the community and said her decision to resign from the committee was made before Pressler’s announcement.

Spencer, who was liberal with praise for both Pressler and the committee Tuesday, said she was surprised by the hard feelings.

“We have praised how much you have added,” she said. “You have been a lifesaver.”

The final straw for Pressler may have come when the committee asked the fire department’s member municipalities — Port Matilda and Halfmoon, Taylor, Huston and Worth townships — to increase the amount they contribute for fire protection.

Pressler says COG, which represents those same municipalities, ignored a financial report provided by the committee and instead asked for charts and graphics displaying the same information.

Spencer said COG wanted a computer-generated report that it could use to drum up support needed to pitch a tax increase to individual municipal boards.

“We are all broke, struggling,” Spencer said. “We just needed to see (the report) broken down.”

The situation appears to have become more complicated when Steve Kibe, Port Matilda fire association president, asked the committee for an electronic copy of its records so that the fire department could make the report being requested by the local governments.

“You haven’t convinced me we need more money (from the municipalities),” Kibe said. “We need to give them the information that they need.”

COG members took Pressler to task Tuesday for comments he made that suggested the fire department would alter the financial records if given an electronic copy.

“There will be people who hook into that,” Spencer said.

Spencer called the current administration and members of the fire department trustworthy, and said issues in the company’s past involve individuals who are no longer associated with the department.

Port Matilda Fire Chief Rich Sutton said the department does not want to assume control of its finances in the absence of a committee.

“We are firefighters, we don’t want the checkbook,” Sutton said. “We fight fires, we help people.”

COG and fire officials acknowledged that finding volunteers who can fill the independent committee, and who are not associated with the department or the municipalities, will be difficult.

Spencer expressed desire to keep the committee in place even after the final year on its 10-year agreement with the fire department expires in 2015.

“I think the (committee) is wonderful protection for the community and the fire company,” she said.