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Rift leaves fire company at risk of disbanding

Political wrangling in Colwyn has led to a vote set for today to revoke charter.

In Delaware County, most everyone loves their fire companies. The firefighters will run into a burning building to save a neighbor, rescue a pet in distress, or, at Christmas time, dress up as Santa to pass out candy canes from their shiny red trucks.

Except in Colwyn Borough, where there is no love lost.

In the town of 2,300 people on the edge of Philadelphia, a split in the volunteer fire company has divided the community.

And left the fire trucks idle behind locked doors.

It has pitted the 17 volunteers who actively fight fires against the approximately 100 "social" members, many of whom come to the firehouse to drink at the bar - in a town where the sale of alcohol is banned.

The 17 volunteers resigned en masse earlier this month after state police raided the firehouse and seized two illegal video slot machines, $2,100 in cash, and bottles of alcohol purchased out of state.

"The guys, together, have had it with what is going on inside the social club," said Richard Guerra, the now former fire chief.

Last week, the Colwyn council announced it would hold a vote today on whether to revoke the 103-year-old fire company's right to operate in the borough.

Fire protection is currently being handled by fire companies from two neighboring towns.

The fight is complicated by the changing nature of the small community; long mostly white and Republican, it is becoming more mixed racially, and more Democratic.

In 1990, 52 percent of all Colwyn voters registered Republican. Today, less than 20 percent are currently registered Republican.

The private, nonprofit fire company's members are drawn from nearby towns. The social members are predominantly white.

Democrats took control of the council last fall, and fire-company loyalists say the current controversy is simply partisan politics.

"This is not about the fire house. This is political," said F. Earl Reed III, the fire company president, who oversees both the social and firefighting activities.

Once in office, Democrats wasted no time combing through the borough's financial records, and requesting an accounting of the tax funds given to the volunteer company - about $26,000 a year. It is supposed to be spent on equipment.

And on March 18, Borough President Tonette Pray sent a letter to Police Chief Bryan Hills asking him to investigate "what appears to be an improper use of Colwyn Borough's fire tax money."

She cited a check for $20,000 issued on Christmas Eve of 2007 and signed by Daniel Betzala, a council member, and Daniel McEnhill, the now-former borough manager. They did not respond to request for comments.

"There is no record in the recorded minutes that Council ever approved this disbursement," Pray said in a letter to the Colwyn chief. "Nor was council as a whole aware of this transaction."

Pray and the council also wanted an accounting of another $12,000 provided to the fire company in September 2007.

So far, the fire company has not responded.

Another question surfaced about a 2006 incident, when $100,000 from the borough's sewer fund was used to secure a loan by the fire company for a new fire truck.

"These disbursements did require a vote [by council] and it is my understanding no vote was taken," Ed Bradley, Colwyn Borough Solicitor said in an interview.

The Delaware County District Attorney's office is also looking at the three transactions.

"We are reviewing the facts and circumstances in order to determine whether or not to start a criminal investigation," said Assistant District Attorney Michael Mattson.

This is not the first time there have been questions about how money is being handled by the fire company.

In 2005, the fire company's charitable arm, the Firemen's Relief Organization, was warned by the state's auditor general the "organization may have conducted its [financial] affairs without the proper authorization."

And the raid by the Bureau of Liquor Control was not the first time the state police have paid a visit to the fire house. In 2004, troopers conducted a similar raid.

At a tumultuous meeting on May 15, resident Krisna McGeachie voiced her displeasure about the drinking at the fire company.

"Why is it necessary for a fire company to have a social club?" McGeachie said.

Some Republican council members, clearly not used to having to provide explanations, looked uncomfortable as they dodged both residents' questions and the pursuing TV cameras when they left the meeting.

After the meeting, Mayor John Fitzgerald, who until early May was also fire company president, declined comment.

Later calls to Fitzgerald and Hills were not returned. Reed, the overall fire company president, referred calls to attorney Joseph Siedlarz, who did not respond.

Even while the council is about to vote on disbanding the fire company, its social members have selected a new fire chief, John Reed, 46, of Wallingford, to take over. He is the brother of the company's president F. Earl Reed III.

John Reed, who is also a firefighter in Brookhaven and Darby, said any new recruit "will be a qualified firefighter."

But if the board approves the vote to disband, his efforts may be moot.