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Chester County Press

Amid Fire & EMS storm, Kennett Borough leaders consider paths forward

07/25/2023 04:10PM ● By Richard Gaw

From left, Kennett Borough Mayor Matt Fetick, Borough Council President Doug Doerfler and Borough Manager Kyle Coleman.    Photo by Richard L. Gaw     

By Richard L. Gaw, Staff Writer

As its founding principle, the Kennett Regional Fire & EMS Commission operates under the philosophy that the power sum of shared resources leads to safer communities.

Formed in 2017, the Commission has, in effect, regionalized fire and EMS services in southern Chester County through the financial support of its six members – East Marlborough, Kennett, Newlin, Pennsbury and Pocopson townships and the Kennett Square Borough – as well as the strength of its key fire and EMS providers – the Kennett, Longwood and Pro-Mar-Lin fire companies, and two ambulance services supplied to the region by the Longwood Fire Company.

The in-pay contribution formula of the Commission takes in four criteria from each municipality: population, assessed value, and the annual volume of fire rescue calls and EMS rescue calls.

At this time last year, the Kennett Borough Council had welcomed four new members and Kyle Coleman was barely into his new job as Borough Manager. When they all met with Kennett Square Mayor Matt Fetick – a voting member of the Commission – they weighed the cost of membership against the cost factor backdrop of other major projects the borough needed to pay for, like repairing infrastructure and fixing roads.

Staring down the large increases of what remaining in the Commission would cost the residents of the borough over the next few years – costs determined by the voting members of the Commission by a caveat contained in its inter-municipal cooperation agreement written in 2017 – they were aghast at what they were seeing.

To make matters worse, borough leadership felt captive to paying whatever figure the Commission determined that the borough would pay.

“From my perspective, the operating agreement requires that whatever the Commission passes as a budget, the participating municipalities must fund it, and heading into 2024, we would have had to increase our contribution by 30 percent,” Fetick said last week. Translated, we would have had to increase our contribution by $114,100 just to get caught up to par, and now they’re proposing another large increase of 30 percent, so we would have to contribute an additional $286,000 to the Commission’s operating budget for 2024, which would be more than 1 mill in new taxes for borough residents.”

If you look back five years ago, the borough’s contribution to the Commission was $250,000. Five years later, we have good reason to believe that the cost will soon reach one million dollars per year (4 mills) for the borough alone.”

The murmurs of the borough’s dissatisfaction with the Commission may have begun in 2022, but by late June of this year, the murmurs became reality.

In a June 27 letter to Kennett Fire & EMS Regional Commission chairman Cuyler Walker, Coleman shared the concerns of the borough council and Fetick, writing that the cost increase levied against the borough to remain in the Commission for 2024 “have given rise to the unfortunate disputes over the interpretation and application of the Commission’s Inter-Municipal Cooperation Agreement.”

This was not the first letter of concern that Walker had received from the borough council. In a June 16, 2022 letter, the council “implored” the Commission to amend the agreement in order to reduce costs and avoid the risk of substantial increases in the future.

Last year, when the borough was wrestling with ways to pay these increased costs to the Commission, they asked for and received some financial relief from the Commission, to the tune of $114,000 for fiscal year 2023.

While it accepted the revised contribution package, borough council’s concerns about the way the Commission operated escalated. At their request, representatives from Fitch & Associates, a Missouri-based solutions provider for fire companies in the U.S. and Canada, gave a presentation on June 7 that spelled out the need for the Commission to recognize the borough’s concerns by modifying its agreement, “in order to allow a greater degree of accountability and fairness with respect to fire and EMS expenditures that are funded, in part, by the Commission’s member municipalities,” Coleman wrote.

The borough also called for the hiring of a “qualified regional administrator” for the Commission; the Department of Economic Development to conduct an “independent fire and emergency services evaluation” of the Commission; and an amendment to the agreement that would include a requirement that all members must approve the Commission’s budget no later than Oct. 1 of each year.

The letter went on to say that Kennett Borough “would very much like to remain a member of the Commission if in working with the Commission it can agree to financial terms which will allow it to do so.”

Two days later, on June 29, the borough issued Resolution No. 2023-11 that authorized borough council to withdraw Kennett Borough from the Commission, effective at midnight on Dec. 31, 2023.

‘It’s completely irresponsible’

"This is really the path towards changes in the model/structure of the agreement,” said Doug Doerfler, borough council president. “Regionalization is the goal to work towards, but this funding model for the Commission is not doable for the borough, and there is nothing to indicate that this model will change.”

 “Regionalization in our commonwealth down to the smallest denominator creates long-term stability for emergency services and does belong, but about 1.8 of percent of our millage rate is going to fire and EMS today, and it could amount to 4 millage points – to a point where a third of our residents’ taxes will be going just to fire and EMS,” Fetick said.That’s the problem with the Commission’s structure: the borough must pay that fee if they pass that budget.

In any other situation, we wouldn’t sign a contract with anyone who would dictate such a thing. We would not sign a contract with another vendor and simply say, ‘Whatever you charge us, we’ll pay the bill.’ It’s completely irresponsible – and dangerous – for us to be in a situation where we are legally obligated to pay whatever they want us to pay.”

“If every member of the Commission paid 1.8 mills like the borough, the fund would have more than enough money, but the disparity is that we’re paying that, and some other municipality’s residents are paying as little as 1.02 mills. If we’re all paying the same millage rate against assessed value, the fund would have all of the money it would need.

“Our residents end up paying a disproportionate amount into the system.”

“I don’t like it when you’re forced to consider another path that so many others want,” Doerfler added. “As public servants, who have a fiduciary responsibility for all of our residents, we have got to look at this in a way that will not affect an already financially burdened municipality. We need to look at public safety, but our taxes keep going up. With our fifty percent tax increase last year, we have made commitments with support from our residents to fix roads and infrastructure.

“We have the most strategic approach right now to do so, and this is pulling us away from everything our constituents want. When we have no control over these costs, we can’t continue the way we are.”

Coleman said that throughout recent negotiations to hammer out a fair budget for fire and EMS services, the Commission has failed to recognize the natural disparity that exists between the borough and the other five municipalities in the Commission.

“There are five townships in the Commission that are roughly the same in assessed value per person – they are the oranges -- and then you have Kennett Borough – which is the only apple,” Coleman said. “If you ask a majority what they believe in, the apple is not going to get their way because it is fundamentally different. The average assessed home value per person who lives in most of these townships is two to three times what it is in the borough.

“In other words, if you build a formula that equally weighs assessed value (home wealth) across municipalities, and one municipality has much less wealth (the borough), you put extra strain on those least able to pay.”

‘He who pays the piper gets to call the tune’

The borough’s decision to withdraw from the Commission has drawn the concern of other members, but none more strongly that their neighbor Kennett Township. In a recent letter to Walker, the township wrote that the borough’s intention “is another development in a long history with the Kennett Fire and EMS Regional Commission. The borough’s engagement over time with the Commission has ebbed and flowed with periods of significant engagement and periods of noteworthy absence.

“The Commission has served as a mechanism for the region to provide necessary funding to the regional fire companies,” the letter continued. “In addition, the Commission serves as a forum for the fire companies to review their services, challenges, threats, opportunities, and successes. Pre-dating the Commission, the fire companies met separately with all six municipalities to request funding. As the borough knows, this was ineffective, unhelpful to the fire companies, and did not allow for long-term planning of funding nor service delivery.”

In the township’s letter, it suggested that the Commission appoint a new negotiating committee to engage with the borough in an effort to allow the borough to rejoin the Commission, or otherwise be served by local fire and EMS units in a way that is “equitable” to the Commission and the fire companies.

In addition, the township recommended that the borough be responsible for funding the full cost for fire and EMS services, and that any balance of future funding left by the borough be absorbed by the five remaining Commission members.

Township Manager Eden Ratliff called the letter the township’s vote of confidence for the Commission.

The purpose of the letter was to show leadership to help the commission determine its next steps, and express the needs of all six municipalities, and also ensuring that the service itself is funded in a way that is equitable,” he said.

The township’s objection to the borough’s decision was recently aired at a public meeting.

“There is an old Scottish saying that says, ‘He who calls the tune pays the piper,’” board Chairman Geoffrey Gamble said at the conclusion of the township’s July 19 Board of Supervisors meeting. “The reverse is true: ‘He who pays the piper gets to call the tune.’ East Marlborough Township and Kennett Township have by far the biggest contributions to the system. One of the proposals that came out of [Kennett Borough Council] was that they have a veto power over any increase in the budget, and they do that by suggesting a unanimous vote be required.

“We do not support that.”

At a Commission meeting earlier this year, Gamble accused Fetick of not addressing three issues the borough objected to: the hiring of an administrator; initiating a unanimous vote system to authorize a cap on increasing costs; and supplying an equipment replacement budget – all of which were supposed to be on the table of a committee that Fetick promised to form.

What happened to the committee? Gamble asked Fetick.

“I offered to chair a long-term strategic planning committee, but the Commission never formed the committee,” Fetick responded. “In January of this year, [Kennett Township Supervisor] Scudder Stevens began the process of hiring a regional administrator, and it failed to come to vote at the Commission.

“And yet, all three sticking points we had a year ago have all been solved. They voted ‘No’ on all of these issues, but to sit there and claim that the borough did nothing for the last year is not accurate. We got all three answers, but all three of our points were off the table.”

(At the Commission’s July meeting, members voted in favor of inviting executive recruiter Nicole Beckett of the Meyner Center at Lafayette College to present on her proposal to develop a job description and conduct a search for a regional administrator. She will be giving her presentation at the Commission’s August meeting.)

‘A significant benefit’

Walker implied that the borough is falling short of seeing the big-picture advantages of what membership in the Commission provides borough residents.

When you look at the allocation of [contributions to the Commission by municipalities], they are done through an objective, four-factor equation that assigns costs based on the size of the population, the aggregate assessed value, as well as the building and other improvements in each municipality,” he said. “Those things alone balance the financial obligations that each municipality has. The other two factors in the equation are based on the proportion of fire calls and ambulance calls. If there are more calls, then that municipality pays more than the others.

Right now, the borough falls in the middle of that. They are certainly not paying the least, but they are certainly not paying the most. The borough also has the significant benefit of having one of our two ambulance response vehicles in the borough, and the other is less than a mile outside the borough.”

In contrast, Walker said, “participating townships are dealing with five- to seven-mile trips by a fire truck or an ambulance. There are benefits here that the borough enjoys that other municipalities don’t.”

Possible fire and EMS options for Kennett Borough

As the borough seeks solutions in order to continue its commitment to provide its residents with fire, ambulance and EMS services in the future – with or without the Kennett Regional Fire & EMS Commission -- Fetick listed four possible options the borough may pursue:

  1. Negotiate to rejoin the Commission
  2. Negotiate with the Commission to provide services to the borough on a contractual basis
  3. Negotiate directly with area fire and EMS providers; or
  4. Submit a request for proposal for a provider to create a contractual agreement with the borough

“The borough is going to explore all options, and no option is off the table, until we can find the best solution that provides the highest level of safety for our residents, at an affordable, reasonable, contained and predictable cost,” Fetick said.The biggest benefit of membership in the Commission is that it helps the different providers with the ability to train, strategize and work together, and I see a huge benefit for the three fire companies,” Fetick said. “They have come together more collaboratively than they ever had before, but I think the Commission has forced us to deal with the challenges of fire and EMS service, and they have also forced us to look at as many options as possible moving forward.”

“The Kennett Regional Fire & EMS Commission is a vehicle for local municipalities to benefit from synergies and economies of scale rather than piecemeal solutions, so I don’t think it’s a positive for any of our municipalities or our residents [to leave the Commission],” Walker said. The Commission will be strong with or without the borough, but I think we’re all better off having all six municipalities at the table meeting regularly with each other and the fire companies. There are certainly less efficiencies if there are five on the inside and one on the outside, but I am respectful of the borough authorities to make their choice.

[Kennett Borough] is obviously taking this very seriously, and if there is a resolution that satisfies all six municipalities, that would be the best outcome.”

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].